Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 3 General Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Mike Gabbard, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 20, which includes Kapolei, Makakilo and portions of Ewa, Kalaeloa and Waipahu. The other candidate is Libertarian Feena Bonoan.
1. Hawaii has been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps the biggest impact is to the economy and the tourism industry, which has been Hawaii’s biggest economic driver. Do you think state leaders have handled the response to the virus effectively, including the approach to testing and health care as well as the stay-at-home orders that have caused serious economic harm? What would you have done differently?
We had among the lowest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the country, so it’s important to recognize that we saved lives by implementing our stay-at-home orders in March. Now in a partial lockdown, it’s critical we avoid large gatherings, wear face coverings, and take personal responsibility to stop the virus from spreading. The Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 did a good job pushing the governor to implement better protocols at our airports to prevent further cases coming into the state. Re-instating the interisland travel quarantine and moving to 100% distance learning on Oahu makes sense.
A big problem with the economic shutdown was our slow response ramping up the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to process the 240,000-plus unemployment claims and the lag in getting people their checks. We should have put more resources toward staffing and updating IT infrastructure to get this money into the hands of our residents who are hurting.
One disturbing occurrence was the release of hundreds of prisoners due to the COVID-19 threat. Our Department of Public Safety should have found ways to use personal protective equipment and physical distancing to prevent some of the released prisoners from making victims of more of our residents.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
I’m hopeful that we can avoid state worker furloughs to prevent the reduction of important state programs. I want to take advantage of low-interest federal loans to keep our state government afloat.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
My top priority this session was to pass House Bill 1819, which allows farmers to apply directly to the USDA to become licensed to grow, process, and sell hemp products.This would allow us to create a new Hawaii-branded hemp industry, create jobs, and diversify our economy that now relies too heavily on tourism.
In case you missed it, Gov. Cayetano declared Dec.14, 1999, Hawaii Industrial Hemp Day. Then, hempwise, government fell asleep, as it tends to do sometimes. Fifteen years later, from 2014-2018 I introduced four bills that became law, which included a UH hemp research study and setting up a pilot hemp research program.
Hemp is an amazing plant that can produce over 25,000 products. And, no, you can’t get high on industrial hemp because the THC content is .3% or less. I’m happy the bill passed the Legislature and is now awaiting the governor’s signature. Hemp, hemp, hooray!
4. Are you satisfied with the current plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities? If not, how would you propose to meet pension and health obligations for public workers? Would you support reductions in benefits including in pension contributions for public employees in light of virus-related budget shortfalls?
We must take a long-game approach to evaluating the health of the Employees’ Retirement System. Just a year ago, the ERS was healthy with a 9.2% gain over the prior decade. Since I’ve been a state senator, we have made some reforms to make the fund more financially viable.
Obviously, COVID-19 has had a negative impact on the fund, but things will likely rebound as our economy stabilizes. I’m opposed to reducing state worker benefits.
5. The state’s virus response effort has exposed deep rifts within the top levels of government, including between the Legislature and Gov. David Ige. He will be in office two more years, so what would you do to ensure public confidence in Hawaii’s government officials and top executives?
It’s not surprising that tensions have been high amid the unprecedented crisis we’ve faced. The fact is that mistakes have been made and there will continue to be errors in judgment. None of us is perfect. The main thing is that we do our best, show aloha to each other, and make decisions with the best interests of the people of our state in mind.
This will help us chart a path to safely reopening our economy and bringing back good health and prosperity to our islands.
6. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. How important do you see this as an issue for Hawaii? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability throughout the state? Do you support police reform efforts such as mandatory disclosure of misconduct records by police agencies and adequate funding for law enforcement oversight boards that have been established in recent years?
There’ve been unfortunate cases of police misconduct in our islands over the last several years. Body cams have been a good addition to promoting transparency in police interactions with the public.
We should consider giving the police commissions greater oversight over our police departments. I do support providing adequate funding for law enforcement boards. During our abbreviated session which ended July 10, I supported House Bill 285, which will allow the release of the names of police officers who’ve been suspended or fired.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes, our state constitutional amendment process has served as the closest thing to a citizen initiative process and it has been an effective way for people to be involved.
Implementing a citizen initiative process in our state will likely promote greater participation in the political process and would be a healthy addition to our democracy.
8. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Gov. David Ige suspended the open government laws under an emergency order during the pandemic. Do you agree or disagree with his action? What would you do to ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion?
I disagreed with the governor’s decision to suspend our open government laws. It never makes sense to close the public out of the policy-making process, especially during a crisis when freedoms and civil rights can be trampled upon.
At the Legislature, our city and county councils, and government boards and commissions, we need to make much improvement in allowing for remote public testimony to accommodate those who are working or can’t be at hearings in person because of where they live. This will make a big difference in allowing people to know what’s going on in government and for getting them involved in the policy making process.
9. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs? How big of a priority is this for you?
As the chair of the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee and a member of the state Climate Commission, I’ll continue supporting policies that reduce the climate threat, like Senate Bill 2060 which we passed during our legislative session that ended on July 10. This bill strengthens the state’s coastal zone management policy and will improve our overall resiliency to climate change.
The bill identifies sea level rise as one of the coastal hazards that the state must address. It will improve the protection of beaches and beach ecosystems that are under threat from sea level rise. The bill prohibits shoreline erosion structures (hardening), such as sea walls on sandy beaches, unless the granting of a variance is clearly in the public interest.
In 2018, I led efforts to enact a first-in-the world law banning the dangerous chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate in sunscreens sold in our state. The law will take effect on Jan. 1, 2021, and will have a big impact on reducing the harm this manmade pollution has had on our coral reefs.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
West Oahu, especially the Kapolei area, has experienced tremendous growth over the last 20 years. We have an abundance of residential and commercial development that provides shopping opportunities and amenities for residents.
However, job creation has been slow to catch up and this causes a huge headache for those of us who must commute back and forth into town to work. I’d like to assist in efforts to create high-paying jobs so that Senate District 20 residents can work close to where they live. We need to implement a state tax credit in the Kapolei area for businesses that expand job opportunities in this community. This is an idea I’ve worked on with the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce.
I also strongly support teleworking and will continue to push legislation to make this happen, if given the opportunity.
11. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.
We wring our hands and complain about importing 85-90% of our food costing us about $3 billion annually. But we have plenty of ag land — we simply lack farmers. The average age of farmers in Hawaii is 60. We desperately need a massive online/TV/radio/print campaign extolling the virtues of being a farmer — that being a farmer is a noble profession, no less noble than being a doctor, lawyer, businessperson, etc.
As the Agriculture and Environment Committee chair, I’ve been a huge supporter of Waianae’s MA`O Organic Farms’ Youth Leadership Program that teaches young people about farming, pays them a monthly $525 stipend, and pays for their college tuition.The program changes lives dramatically and encourages a new generation to consider agriculture as a career to help us become more food self-sufficient.
For several years, I’ve been working with Dr. Albie Miles of UH West Oahu to replicate a program like MA`O’s on the UH mauka lands above the UHWO campus. This program would be called the UHWO Agribusines/Educational Program, be integrated with UHWO Bachelor of Applied Science in Sustainable Community Foods Systems program, and be a world-class center for organic agriculture, agricultural workforce development, and diversification of our economy.