Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary 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 Natalia Hussey-Burdick, Democratic candidate for state House District 50, which includes Moku Manu Island, Popoia Island and Kailua. The other Democratic candidates are Toni Difante, Michael Lee and Esera Vegas.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Candidate for State House District 50

Natalia Hussey-Burdick
Party Democratic
Age 32
Occupation Chief of staff, Hawaii House of Representatives
Residence Kailua, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

2021, City and County of Honolulu Reapportionment Commission; 2021-2022, program manager, Kuleana Academy Leadership Training program; 2020, Delegate to Democratic National Convention; 2020-2022, secretary, Democratic Party of Hawaii; 2018-2020, assistant secretary, Democratic Party of Hawaii; 2017-2018, volunteer guardian ad litem for kids in foster care.

1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?

As I go door-to-door, the number one issue I hear about is the continually increasing homelessness. The homeless population is drastically undercounted by the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) counts. I have seen it with my own eyes when I volunteered for those PIT counts, there must have been a sweep done the night before or everyone decided to hide from the count because the common gathering places were completely empty.

The problem is, many of the underlying causes of homelessness have been neglected for years. We need to:

— Increase the numbers of social workers, drug treatment centers and mental health programs to address the root causes of homelessness.

— Invest in transitional and employment training services like RYSE, IHS, and Work Hawaii.

— Build truly affordable housing in well-planned locations (increasing density in the urban core to minimize environmental impact).

These solutions will all require significant funding, but those funds will be saved later down the line with reduced ER visits, jail and prison costs, and social welfare programs.

2. Many people have talked about diversifying the local economy for many years now, and yet Hawaii is still heavily reliant on tourism. What, if anything, should be done differently about tourism and the economy?

I spent a lot of time researching and thinking about this last year when the Legislature was examining tourism alternatives. I facilitated meetings with international tourism management expert Doug Lansky, and helped Rep. Wildberger draft 2022 HB1899, which would have changed HTA’s guiding statute from “Tourism Marketing” to “Tourism Management,” incorporating the concepts of Regenerative Tourism.

Hawaii has so many other viable options to diversify our economy; the possibilities are practically infinite. My top three ideas for local economic growth are:

— Increasing local agriculture by supporting small farmers through public land leases and shared commercial kitchens.

— Implementing career readiness programs for cutting-edge environmental jobs, high-tech data systems, and creative industries.

— Thoughtful planning to build transit-oriented affordable housing in areas that make sense for the community and the environment.

3. An estimated 60% of Hawaii residents are struggling to get by, a problem that reaches far beyond low income and into the middle class, which is disappearing. What ideas do you have to help the middle class and working families who are finding it hard to continue to live here?

I strongly support these three ideas that working families advocates have been begging the Legislature to implement for years:

— Tax fairness: Hawaii is one of the only states that taxes people in poverty, and we tax them at a higher rate than billionaires. Hawaii is becoming a haven for millionaires and billionaires, and it is a direct result of our regressive tax policies that shamelessly favor the ultra-wealthy. A flat tax (giving everyone the same tax rate, regardless of income) would be better than the current structure, but I won’t be satisfied until we tax billionaires at a higher rate than people in poverty.

— Paid family leave: This has always been important to support working families who can’t afford caretakers for their keiki and kupuna, but it is even more critical now as we transition into a post-pandemic world. Other states fund it through a social insurance system, similar to our unemployment insurance program. I’m confident that it could easily be added to our existing unemployment insurance program.

— Eliminating GET on essential goods: It’s long past time for Hawaii to join the majority of other states that don’t tax basic necessities like groceries, diapers and feminine care products.

4. Hawaii has the most lopsided Legislature in the country, with only one Republican in the Senate and only four in the House. How would you ensure there is an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability for decisions? What do you see as the consequences of one-party control, and how would you address that?

I am a proud Democrat, and as such I actually wish we had stronger second and third parties in Hawaii. We see it happen all the time here: Republicans and third-party candidates switch parties and run for office as a Democrat because they know that particular party label will give them a 15% point boost in our state. This practice undermines our party values, and leaves the true Democrats wondering how to hold our legislators accountable when they act in direct opposition to our party platform.

As secretary of the party, I’ve been working with fellow Democrats for years to try to solve this problem, but we haven’t been able to agree on a good solution within the current political party structure.

I’m open to exploring other structures like switching to a more representative parliamentary system, a unicameral Legislature, or even abolishing political parties altogether, but short of overhauling our entire constitution it seems that the best thing we can do is hold legislators accountable when their actions aren’t aligned with the Democratic Party platform, and encourage everyone to vote in the primaries. Automatic voter registration would help, too.

5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process? 

I support a statewide initiative process with appropriate safeguards in place to protect our people and our environment. Citizen-driven ballot initiatives can potentially produce great rewards and be a powerful tool for citizens, but it comes with a high risk of corporate takeover since the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to promote or defeat such initiatives.

Hawaii already allows for limited county-level initiative and referendum, but we’ve seen that sometimes successful county initiatives have been overturned by the courts when it was determined that the counties didn’t have proper authority to regulate the issue in question.

When I first learned about the risks, I initially opposed statewide ballot initiatives out of fear of runaway corporate interests. But after thoughtful consideration, I’ve decided that I have faith in the voters to decide each issue for themselves. I ultimately think the citizens initiative process has more potential for good than evil, especially when the Legislature repeatedly fails to protect the public interest (for example, by not shutting down Red Hill when they had the chance).

6. Thanks to their campaign war chests and name familiarity, incumbents are almost always re-elected in Hawaii legislative races. Should there be term limits for state legislators, as there are for the governor’s office and county councils? Why or why not?

I absolutely support term limits as a way to level the playing field in our political system. I think limits of six to eight terms in the state House and three to four terms in the state Senate seem reasonable. That’s enough time for lawmakers to become familiar with the finer points of writing bills and parliamentary procedure, without it being so much time that politicians feel like they can coast along without putting in any real work to accomplish anything.

We don’t need lifetime office-holders. What we need are people who are passionate advocates for their communities who will go in, accomplish the goals they set out to accomplish within the limited time they have, and then pass the torch to the next generation.

7. Hawaii has recently experienced a number of prominent corruption scandals, prompting the state House of Representatives to appoint a commission tasked with improving government transparency through ethics and lobbying reforms. What will you do to ensure accountability at the Legislature? Are you open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature or banning campaign contributions during session?

Absolutely — these are things I’ve been working toward for years.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it forced the Legislature to finally embrace technology: all of our hearings are now live-streamed and archived on YouTube, and we’re allowing the public to participate remotely via Zoom. I will only support leadership who commits to continuing both of those basic transparency and accountability practices. I still can’t believe we used to make neighbor island residents fly over in order to testify — with just 48 hours notice!

It isn’t right that the Legislature created a Sunshine Law for the purpose of public participation and transparency, but then exempted itself from it.

It is inherently unethical for incumbent legislators to regularly hold fundraisers the day before critical legislative deadlines.

I also support other common sense measures like strengthening conflict-of-interest laws, publishing voter information guides, and reducing the power of committee chairs to unilaterally kill bills without consent from their committee members.

8. How would you make the Legislature more transparent and accessible to the public? Opening conference committees to the public? Stricter disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists? How could the Legislature change its own internal rules to be more open?

Half my job at the Legislature is explaining deadlines and committee acronyms to people, which many find to be prohibitively over complicated. It would be great if the bill status pages more clearly marked whether a bill is alive or dead, and which deadline and committee killed it.

Testimony should be released to the public (or at least to the committee members) as soon as it is submitted. Currently, most committee chairs keep the testimony secret and only release it to the committee members 15-60 minutes before the hearing. This effectively consolidates power and makes it difficult for the committee members to make informed decisions.

Conference committee should utilize the same public testimony process we use for regular hearings. The current practice is: department heads send emails explaining which draft is better, and our staff combs through hundreds of emails to make sure we don’t miss any.

There are so many internal resources that should be made public. Things like “comparison sheets” that summarize the differences between House and Senate drafts, and a macro-enabled Excel spreadsheet that autofills the next hearing date for all the bills you’re tracking. It’s all just condensing information that’s already public, but without those critical tools, everyday people have a much harder time participating in the legislative process.

9. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?

If we’re talking about divisions on local policy issues, what I’ve observed is that policy is often written with only one side in mind. This leaves the other side feeling bulldozed and ignored, and gives them no other option but to protest.

When people rise up against something, they usually have at least one objectively valid point, and there is often (not always, but often) a way that the bill can be amended to appease both sides and create some kind of a win-win situation. Unfortunately, in my experience, our elected officials rarely invest the time and energy to craft a bill with that level of nuance. We need lawmakers who are willing to put in that effort.

If we’re talking about society as a whole, we need to ban surveillance advertising (the polarizing business model that “The Social Dilemma” explained was the primary driver in the Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton divisiveness), especially for political ads. Surveillance advertising is one of the reasons we see a completely different social media universe than the people on the other side of the political spectrum, and we think things like “how could the other side be so unaware of their own corruption?”

10. 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.

I like this question because it allows candidates to get creative and picture an idyllic world instead of the typical putting-out-fires type of policy priority, like improving public education and reducing homelessness, which are more common-sense policy than “One Big Idea” that would be difficult to pass into fruition.

If I could reinvent the way we do things in Hawaii, I would overhaul our entire IT system and enact a Green New Deal where we provide training to transition our workforce from data enterers into data managers. From high-carbon emission jobs like working on oil tankers to cutting-edge sustainability technology like generating electricity from the ocean.

It would be expensive upfront, but it would pay for itself later down the line with savings and a boost to our local economy. The reason our unemployment system had such a backlog during the pandemic was because the system mainframe was built in the 1980’s. Our antiquated DMV database is a large part of why it’s so hard to crack down on abandoned vehicles.

A high-tech overhaul with a focus on sustainability would benefit our workers, our economy and our environment.

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