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 Laura Acasio, Democratic candidate for state Senate District a, which includes Pepeekeo, Papaikou, Hilo, Keaukaha and Kaumana. The other Democratic candidates are Lorraine Inouye and Wil Okabe.

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

Candidate for State Senate District 1

Laura Acasio
Party Democratic
Age 46
Occupation State senator
Residence Hilo

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

2021-present, state senator; 2016-2022, state Democratic Central Committee representative; 2018-2020, state Democratic District 2 chair; 2018, state Democratic Convention, Registration Committee; 2016-present, Democratic conventions, county and state delegate; 2014-2021, Ka ʻUmeke Kaʻeo Public Charter School, board; 2016-2019 Surfrider Foundation Hilo Chapter, board; 2010-2012, East Hawaii Local Area Consortium on Perinatal Health, member; 2007-2011, Hilo Boys and Girls Club, Kaiao Community Garden co-founder; 2004-2005 Hālau Wānana Hawaiian Center of Higher Learning, assistant writer; 2001-2004, Protect Kahoolawe ‘Ohana, restoration steward; 2003, Hilo’s Women’s Prison, assistant wellness program educator; 2002-2003, Department of Land and Natural Resources, restoration volunteer coordinator; 2002, The Nature Conservancy, service learning volunteer; 2002, First Universalist Church, teen mentor and program facilitator; 2000-2002; U.S. Army Garrison Natural Resources, native species monitor and surveyor.

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

Most residents in my district cite “homelessness” as our biggest issue. Solving the problem requires two approaches, the first being a form of triage that provides shelter and services in the most direct way possible.

As a member of the Senate Human Services Committee, I am collaborating with colleagues to build on the success of the Ohana Zone programs, which have served 5,510 individuals statewide and placed 1,368 of them in permanent housing. The program has also preserved 358 beds/units statewide, and added another 469. While this is clearly not enough, the program’s success has proven that the concept is sound. More funding is needed. I believe housing is a form of health care, and the savings that accrue by intervening before emergency services are required justifies the investment.

The second approach amounts to building a firewall against future homelessness. This means identifying those most at risk and supporting them before they fall into this debilitating situation. Those exiting military service and the criminal justice system are at increased risk. Re-entry programs within both these institutions have proven successful. I support the development of such programs and will continue to do so if elected.

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?

The state should stop promoting tourism and simply allow people to visit of their own accord. These taxpayer funds are better spent protecting our precious natural resources and supporting our state priorities of agriculture, clean energy and education. We can all enjoy the benefits of a robust tourism industry, one that comes with a greatly reduced carbon footprint, by encouraging interisland travel among residents. Most of the money out-of-state visitors bring here ends up leaving; money circulating locally cancels out losses due to decreased arrivals.

Although District 1 is home to one of the richest natural environments in the state and some of the most innovative and inspired people you will ever meet, we suffer from a depressed economy. My office is working to turn this around through a waste-to-wealth initiative that lays the foundation for a circular flow of capital and other resources in our community. Collaborations with state and county officials aimed at securing funding for urban renewal projects are underway. The redevelopment of Banyan Drive is back on track, this time with the caveat that community needs take precedence. The revitalization of these two areas in ways that balance the needs of visitors and residents creates an economic engine that supports the entire district.

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?

Hawaii’s over-reliance on tourism and military spending has yielded enormous benefits to a select few while leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. Our natural resources continue to be hijacked in service to outside interests; this with the belief that somehow the money they spend here will make everything okay. It’s sad it’s taken regular folks so long to understand and speak out against such falsehoods, better late than never.

Economic policies aimed at building wealth in disenfranchised communities are gaining momentum at all levels of government. Although it takes awhile for policies to result in tangible results, this shift is underway, unstoppable and nothing less than revolutionary. Last session, my office served as a driving force for the values embodied in this shift. In every instance where a bill or an appropriation would lead to a stronger local economy and more opportunity for residents, we supported it. There is no lack of ideas on how to build wealth in lower and middle socioeconomic classes; what’s lacking is a will to act on those ideas. Voters can count on me as a driving force for just economic policies.

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?

The problem is not that Hawaii voters prefer Democrats over Republicans, the problem is that too many of those Democrats think it’s okay to amass power for themselves and wield it over their colleagues to benefit the special interests that funded their own campaigns. The open exchange required to shift this starts with elected officials from both chambers summoning the courage to speak out against the way the chambers organize themselves and run committee business.

Our state makes an extraordinary effort to guarantee equal representation throughout the voting process, but the manner in which the chambers organize turns voters in districts that are not represented by Senate or House leadership into second-class citizens.

A number of reform measures are being championed by new candidates and even incumbents this election. I am proud to include myself among them. At this point, I am encouraging everyone, statewide, to vote for these champions. If enough of us get elected, we will have the power to institute needed reforms.

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

Yes.

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?

The most compelling argument I can make in favor of term limits is that they act as a flushing mechanism for the factionalism and grudges that accumulate in our political system to the detriment of our entire state. Although I entered politics well aware of the many ways the process can get corrupted, nothing prepared me for the number of times I heard a bill wouldn’t pass or a funding request wouldn’t get approved simply because someone didn’t like someone else. Every time I was forced to accept this felt like a gut punch. It happens regardless of how good the bill is or how much the appropriation is needed; it happens between representatives and senators elected to serve the very same communities.

Not everyone at the capitol behaves in this way, and while I do believe there are incumbents who have served Hawaii well for decades, I know there are countless ways for termed-limited legislators to continue serving the public beyond the confines of the state Capitol building.

In addition to the many other ways they deter corrupt practices, term limits provide the benefit of flushing the system of petty personality conflicts that prevent progress on key issues.

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?

Yes to Sunshine Law requirements. Yes to banning campaign contributions during session. Every time my job puts me in a room with my colleagues and no public presence, I feel like we are betraying the public trust. This happens far more than I realized it would when I accepted this position and, even though it’s all according to the Senate rules, it never sits well with me.

I ensure accountability by first holding myself and my staff accountable. I am open and honest in my communications with colleagues and constituents. When I see or experience something that does not seem right, I say something about it.

Beyond the issues posed in this question, I have begun advocating for a reform to the conference committee process, which, as it currently operates, has the potential to undermine everything else legislators do in public prior to conferencing. Legislators have fallen into the habit of attaching bad dates and blank funding amounts to every bill as a way to send them to conference where they can get killed behind closed doors in a process with little to no accountability. This needs to stop.

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?

We need to sustain the online process for receiving testimony during hearings, and, when decision-making occurs after testimony is taken, the public should be present. Currently, committee members take a recess for decision-making; this should not be allowed.

Internal rules should divide power fairly among all senators and representatives. Committee assignments should be made by taking a vote among all the members, or by lottery. Bills that receive support from a majority of representatives or senators during the bill introduction process should be guaranteed a hearing by subject matter committees.

As for conferencing, this is where the most reform is needed. Legislators should not be allowed to attach bad dates to bills as a means to send them to conference; and they should be required to include funding ranges in committee when appropriations are needed and then only allowed to narrow down those amounts in conference, instead of revisiting every other aspect of a bill that otherwise passed both chambers.

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?

What I do now is focus on what we have in common, which, sad to say, is widespread loss of civic faith. The challenge to building consensus behind our shared disillusionment, so that we can work together towards real reform, stems from differences over who is to blame for the failures of government. While this can seem like an insurmountable obstacle at times, the rewards to be gained are so great that it’s in everyone’s interest to take the time and sort them out. We do this by zeroing in on policies and standards that increase accountability, which includes increased access to government processes for the citizen and an end to decision-making that occurs behind closed doors.

Paying attention to what gets said and done by whom over a period of time long enough to distinguish propaganda from fact is the key to holding politicians accountable. This takes time but it’s worth the effort. And on the citizen’s end, including and acknowledging everyone who wants to get involved, identifying reforms that make sense to us all, taking action on those items and building faith in the process as well as ourselves as a community is a good starting point.

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.

My gut reaction to this question is that I should not take it upon myself, even only as an intellectual exercise, to reinvent something that impacts everyone in Hawaii. While I do have inspiring ideas to share, the question’s premise compels me to declare that our existing systems fail us to the extent that they were created by a select group of people who thought it was okay to decide things on their own.

We create a better state by amplifying, rather than silencing, the voices of those who were excluded when it came to deciding how many tourists come here, how long the U.S. military should occupy our lands and how much we should invest in food production, education and caring for our vulnerable populations.

As for a big idea, my office has become a focal point for waste-to-wealth innovation, the goal being to turn the millions of dollars in natural resources thrown away or incinerated every day into economic opportunities. I favor this idea because it’s built on old-school values and can apply in so many ways, but how it ultimately plays out will depend on what others think as well.

We’re here to help Hawaii vote.

Our staff has spent months preparing for this election season. Now it’s your turn to vote on the leaders who will impact our community for years to come.

If you’ve relied on our daily analysis and reporting, Candidate Q&As, free events and online resources, please consider making a donation to your local nonprofit newsroom.

Every contribution, however big or small, powers our journalism.