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 Chris Lee, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 25 representing Kailua, Lanikai, Enchanted Lake, Keolu Hills, Maunawili, Waimanalo, Hawaii Kai and Portlock. The other candidate is Republican Kristina Kim-Marshall.
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?
While only the governor and mayor have emergency powers, as a legislator I’ve searched for other ways to help. I volunteered for weeks helping to process unemployment claims to get local families their benefits. I connected local tech companies who volunteered to make emergency fixes to the old technology. But were it up to me, I would like to have ramped up emergency unemployment response much sooner.
The dismissive and delayed response to the pandemic by federal leaders and refusal to grant Hawaii authority to restrict travel, meant visitors continued to come. I would have begun screening at airports earlier based on the science and understanding of the virus at the time.
While there weren’t enough COVID tests early on during the worldwide shortage, we could still question visitors to determine risk, institute quarantines, enforce them with the ferocity they are enforced now, and establish ample contact tracing capacity. Had we successfully screened at airports perhaps we might have minimized a second spike and kept a kamaaina economy open at a higher tier.
But since many businesses were closed, I’ve asked the governor to consider extending the moratorium on evictions to cover local small businesses.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
During the last two recessions in 2009 and the ’90s, Hawaii responded with austerity, cutting budgets from which our state never recovered.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources, responsible for managing our ocean, beaches and environment, still has just half the budget it had in the ’90s. It’s no wonder our natural resources aren’t being protected for future generations as well as our community expects. The Department of Agriculture lost capacity to inspect arrivals for invasive species, which now overrun local farms. The Department of Labor had technology upgrades delayed and personnel cut, contributing to the unemployment office crisis we face today. The Department of Health saw its entire vector control branch wiped out.
We can’t repeat the same mistakes, believing we can cut our way out of a shortfall, which would further hurt our local economy and worsen Hawaii’s problems in the future. State government is the only institution that can inject money and stimulate our economy, which is the approach economists support. That means discharging excess money in unused special funds, and creatively finding new revenue. Hundreds of millions of dollars could be gained from carbon and pollution credits, the cannabis industry, wealthier tourists and other options.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
I’ve successfully worked to pass legislation that has begun to help diversify our economy and create thousands of new jobs. Rebuilding our economy post-COVID is the time to double down and accelerate this change.
We export $8 billion each year to import food and energy. This is the best place to begin transitioning to a more circular economy. I built a coalition and passed Hawaii’s groundbreaking law to shift Hawaii to 100% clean energy. Progress toward that goal has reduced Oahu electric rates by over 15% in recent years and saved half a billion dollars, and boosted the renewable energy industry. Another law I passed directed HECO to let homeowners install solar and batteries, creating work that helped local solar and construction companies hire thousands of new employees.
To transition Hawaii from dying plantation agriculture and create a new generation of productive small farms, I created the nation’s first program providing local farmers with up to $50,000 in support to grow local organic food. I also created a grant program to help farmers pay for fresh compost and reduce energy costs. And I established a grant program to create composting and food production in public schools.
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?
Contrary to popular assumption, Hawaii was recently rated by both conservative and liberal budget think tanks as doing more than nearly any other state to address unfunded liabilities. In 2013 the Legislature approved a law that requires hundreds of millions of dollars to be paid each year in additional payments to bring down the state’s unfunded liability. If the Legislature doesn’t pay that bill, the law requires that it comes directly out of the treasury anyway.
We have a long way to go, but this approach has been found to be a well-received solution to pay down unfunded liabilities without increasing costs to local taxpayers or reneging on commitments to beneficiaries. While unexpected recessions and disruptions like COVID can affect payments, the key is staying the course over the long term so unfunded liabilities are resolved as planned.
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?
Political polarization that has put party before country in Washington, D.C., and the growing belief in corruption and lies from elected leaders are why the public has lost confidence in government.
We can change that. I’ve worked with colleagues to successfully begin to reform our laws to prevent even the appearance of corruption. I led negotiations on a bill we just passed that bars future governors and mayors from being paid on the side by special interests while serving in office. We should not have to worry about leaders making decisions for their own financial benefit.
I passed an amendment to a bill that prohibits state contractors from making political contributions to elected officials to prevent pay-to-play politics that dominates Washington, D.C.
To ensure transparency in elections, I passed a groundbreaking law requiring secretive super-PACs to disclose who really funds their election ads, and added provisions to a bill requiring candidates to report who is giving them money more often.
Finally, I passed a bill this year prohibiting the governor and state leaders from lobbying former colleagues on behalf of clients immediately after leaving office, to prevent a revolving door of influence blurring the lines between decision-makers and special interests.
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?
In Hawaii there have been 80 cases of unwarranted assault by officers and over 100 cases of falsified police reports in recent years. I helped write and pass the police reform law, ending 25 years of keeping misconduct by law enforcement officers secret.
Make no mistake, police officers have one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs. We absolutely have to support them. That means we owe it to the good officers who put their lives on the line in the pursuit of justice to help weed out the bad. Allowing unjust assaults or corruption to remain secret only makes the entire department complicit in the eyes of the public, diminishes public trust in every law enforcement officer, and makes their jobs more difficult and dangerous.
Discrimination still persists in our justice system and elsewhere, particularly against Native Hawaiians and Micronesians. We must remain vigilant. While addressing Hawaii’s Legislature in 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained, “we have come a long, long way … but if we stop here, we would be the victims of a dangerous optimism … this is our challenge and we look to this great new state in our Union as the example and as the inspiration.”
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I support getting the public engaged in our political process anytime we can. However, with voter apathy so high, and fake information so prevalent, real democracy is beginning to be compromised by outside special interests who can spend millions promoting false narratives to win elections. It’s happening regularly in states like California and Florida whose initiative processes are frequently hijacked by large corporations and billionaires trying to change the law for their own benefit.
In Florida, a group of big electric utilities recently tried to block competition from home solar systems. They spent tens of millions advertising a false narrative to get people to support an amendment that would meaningfully prevent homeowners from installing their own solar panels. They advertised it as a “pro-solar” amendment. It nearly passed.
Initiatives can be beneficial under the right circumstances, but before implementing an initiative process that would open Hawaii to these kinds of predatory interests out to buy elections for their own benefit, we as a community must figure out how to ensure transparency in the policies being promoted in these kinds of situations, and get significantly more voters educated and engaged.
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 just passed a law this year that opens records to the public. Even during a pandemic steps can be taken to carefully ensure public participation without compromising safety. For example, the Legislature has already begun to consider changes that would ensure public access and participation in board and commission meetings, as well as at the Legislature itself.
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?
I’ve helped lead Hawaii’s climate efforts and made this issue a priority because the longer we wait to act, the higher the cost and worse the impact will be on local residents. I’ve built coalitions of community groups, businesses and colleagues and together we’ve made Hawaii a national leader on climate policy to which other states look for guidance.
I’ve successfully passed laws committing Hawaii to 100% clean energy and a carbon negative clean economy by 2045, transitioning to clean transportation, directing our schools and university campuses to become energy net-zero (Leeward Community College just hit this target … 15 years ahead of schedule with a cost savings of $8.4 million) and establishing what is now the Hawaii Climate Commission of government agencies, scientists and community stakeholders to chart our path forward. I also secured funding for the most advanced sea level rise analysis anywhere in the world, which has found $19 billion in coastal roads, buildings, and beaches will be lost if we don’t act soon.
We can use this opportunity to build more resilient communities, save eroding beaches, expand parks, and build a clean energy economy and create jobs for our next generation. But we must act now.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Cost of living and growing economic inequality. Half of Hawaii families can’t afford basic food, shelter and health care. This is especially acute in our community.
I’ve helped pass laws that have already begun to reduce our cost of living and build an economy that works for everyone. I’ve introduced legislation to establish a state earned income tax credit to put cash directly into the pockets of working families and allow paid family leave to care for siblings. Working with colleagues, the Legislature adopted both new policies.
I passed a law barring employers from using non-compete agreements to prevent workers from seeking higher-paying jobs elsewhere. A recent analysis found this law helped local job mobility and increased worker wages by 4%.
Bills I’ve passed to allow more solar have helped reduced electric costs for all local households, and as a result of progress toward 100% clean energy, electric rates on Oahu have already fallen by over 15% as cheaper renewables replace expensive fossil fuels.
Next, we have to ensure housing is truly affordable. We should begin by leveraging foreign and visitor demand for property to subsidize housing costs for local families, instead of driving costs up.
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 need to let go of left-over 20th century preconceived notions about what is possible in Hawaii if we are going to succeed in the 21st.
We face serious challenges that grow worse each passing year. Tourism is unsustainable as a sole pillar of the economy. Dependence on imports is unsustainable for economic security. Our economy itself is unsustainable for half of local families.
We fail to meaningfully change these things because we are hesitant to risk changing the underlying institutions that 20th century Hawaii was built upon tax policies, structure of governance, institutions, infrastructure, community hierarchies and businesses too big to fail.
Yet, markets, technology, climate, even generational values rapidly change around us. Hawaii has traditionally responded by planning ahead beginning where we are, assuming many sacred cows are unchangeable, trying to change around them. This is why we fail. We must all plan to adapt or risk being violently disrupted.
It sounds simple, but it’s time to put everything on the table. We must imagine the Hawaii we want to see and work backward identifying actionable steps to get there, letting go of the assumptions and sacred cows that traditionally hold us back, so we can all adapt together.