Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 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 Sylvia Luke, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Her opponent is Republican Seaula Tupa’i.
1. What is the biggest issue facing Hawaii, and what would you do about it?
Hawaii needs more affordable housing for our working families and young professionals. The 2019 estimate from the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism projected a need for 36,155 units by 2030.
My son Logan is currently attending college in the mainland, and I am really concerned whether he will be able to come home after graduation. Not just because of opportunities up there, but because I don’t know if he sees himself being able to return and make Hawaii his home. It’s sad that a place he grew up all his life, he has trouble seeing a future here.
Median prices are over $1 million now, and it out-prices young professional and working families from buying a home. Our state needs to get serious about providing more affordable housing opportunities if we want to see our kamaaina stay and live here.
If elected as LG, I will do what I did as House Finance Committee chair and bring key stakeholders together to figure out ways to build more homes for purchase or rental more quickly. That will likely mean streamlining permitting. It will mean providing more state resources — funds or state lands — to fast-track projects.
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 am a strong supporter of our tourism industry because it is the top economic driver for our economy. However, we need to come to the realization that residents’ attitudes and tolerance for tourism has changed dramatically. After hitting a record-breaking 10 million-plus visitors to our state in 2019, along with seeing what island life looked and felt like for locals when tourism plummeted during the lockdown and a sudden surge of overwhelming return last summer, there were grumbles and complaints that it was “too much.”
At the Hawaii Tourism Authority, we have seen their plans change from just “marketing” tourism, to now “managing” tourism. I support this more managed approach to tourism in Hawaii so that we do not just satisfy residents’ calls to address “overtourism,” but we adopt efforts within the tourism industry to offer visitor experiences that are less intensive on our infrastructure.
I support the HTA’s initiative to create a comprehensive destination management program, which seeks visitors who appreciate and care for our natural resources and respect our host culture.
3. The Legislature this session approved spending $600 million for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands plus another $300 million for other housing programs. What specifically would you try to do to create more housing for middle- and low-income residents?
Creating affordable housing stock is a critical investment into the future generations of Hawaii’s families.
As Finance chair, I have actually worked on solutions, including using federal money to help create more supply of affordable housing. We also extended tax credits to increase the supply of low-income rentals.
But, I have learned that there is a difference in passing laws, and then getting them implemented. I am running for LG because I am uniquely qualified to get these laws that were already passed put into action. I have experience breaking down government silos and pushing through bureaucracy so that we can get projects built more efficiently and quickly.
However, more will need to be done to advocate for the creation of additional units and ensure state resources are expended responsibly to address the housing needs of Hawaii’s families. We need an advocate to secure additional state resources — whether that is state land for projects to be built on, or state funds for infrastructure to be put into place — so that we have more available shovel-ready places for homes to be built.
4. 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?
Pre-pandemic, 42% of Hawaii households struggled to make ends meet while 33% qualified as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed) households living below the federal poverty level. These families work in key Hawaii industries, yet do not earn enough to support their own households — meaning that these families may be forced to choose between spending income on quality health care, necessary child care, food or rent.
This past legislative session, I was proud that we passed proposals to increase Hawaii’s minimum wage, strengthened the earned income tax credit by making it permanent and refundable, provided a $300 tax rebate to Hawaii’s working families, created a retirement savings program for employees who do not receive a retirement program through their employer, and provided a $300 million investment into affordable housing. These measures will bring needed relief to Hawaii’s most challenged populations; however, more will need to be done.
If elected as LG, I will continue to support providing greater access to housing for Hawaii families, including investing in affordable housing and honoring the state’s commitment to expand homestead housing for DHHL beneficiaries and advocate to provide additional resources for child care through expanded pre-kindergarten access for all of Hawaii’s keiki.
5. The pandemic was particularly difficult for Hawaii’s public schools. Should there be a change in the way schools are administered? Would you support more local control including breaking the single school district into subregions?
No. I do not support breaking up our single school system into local school boards. This proposal was floated several years ago, but never passed because there is no evidence or data to show that local school boards have any effect in student performance. Student motivation, parental involvement, qualified educators and instruction, class size and school facilities are all factors that experts attribute to student performance and success. I am unaware of any that point to school governance.
Hawaii’s statewide single system of public education means that budgets across schools are mostly uniform across the state ensuring equitable funding irrespective of rural/urban location or socio-economic demographics of communities. As such, our public education system benefits from structural equity, consistency and uniformity.
However, the statewide system’s intent for equitable funding does not give enough flexibility for schools to be innovative. There must be more funding provided for additional assistance in smaller schools and rural schools. Further, charter schools not only provide alternatives to parents and students but allow the schools to be flexible in catering to the students’ needs, and they should be supported.
6. 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?
Having served in the Legislature, I think there are definite areas of improvement needed for more transparency and accountability. I support ensuring open records laws to the Legislature, but I think the Legislature is a body that is better judged by the outcome than the deliberations that go into the final bill.
As to requiring the open meetings law, I do think there are areas of that law that should be applied to the Legislature, but I am not sure all of the provisions are applicable to a large 76-member body. These laws may work for councils, boards and commissions since they usually have less than 10 members.
Instead, I think accountability and transparency of the Legislature is better achieved by requiring more disclosures of potential conflicts of interest, more transparency on financial and ethical disclosures, by increasing enforcement and resources for government watchdog agencies.
7. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. A governor represents all the people of the state. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?
Being in a legislative body, especially in a diverse place like Hawaii, gives me a unique experience in working with people of all different backgrounds. The Legislature has a wide range of ages, ethnicities, income, work experiences and personal stories. But everyone there is motivated by the idea of making a difference and trying to make Hawaii a better place.
But of course, the differences lie in the ways in which we want to do that. My years as a leader in the House taught me the importance of being able to listen — to hear not just the words that are said, but the motivations that are driving that position. It taught me how to be a better mediator and facilitator of heated discussions. It made be better at finding compromise.
If I am elected as LG, I will use these skills and experiences I have gained to help find solutions on critical and complex public policy issues.
8. The office of lieutenant governor has few official duties and is often viewed as irrelevant. But some LGs have managed to play a significant role in government. What would you do to make the office more productive?
I believe this office can be put to better use to create change in our community, if we elect the person with the right skills. The lieutenant governor can help the governor by collaborating with the Legislature and all state departments to make sure we execute on good ideas for change.
The lieutenant governor can be a channel for our communities, to make sure voices from across our state are heard.
My vision for an effective LGʻs office requires a person who knows the state and its systems; who has a history of collaborating to solve problems; and who has created relationships with many different people and groups.
I have honed those skills over two decades of public service. I grew up in Hawaii, I have many of the same values and understand what makes Hawaii special.
9. Sometimes Hawaii governors and lieutenant governors have not gotten along very well, and those disputes have spilled into the public realm. How important is it for you to be on the same page as the governor, and how will you handle disagreements on policy?
I think it is important for the governor and lieutenant governor to have a good working relationship so that the LG can be an effective partner to the governor, helping promote the administration’s agenda, helping move forward on a joint vision to making Hawaii better.
Therefore, I think it is important for both to hold similar positions on most issues. This helps avoid confusion, or worse, a perception that the LG is undermining the governor.
However, there will be times of disagreement. I think it is most important that the two have an honest and forthright relationship where they can discuss the disagreements and see where there are areas of potential agreement and compromise that both can agree on and promote.
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.
While visiting communities across our state during this campaign, I’ve found the people to be warm and welcoming. But, especially in rural communities, I hear a consistent refrain — concerns about how they sometimes feel isolated or not as connected like places on Oahu. Our rural areas need to have better access and be able to connect more easily and this means better technology to stay connected — for work, for our children’s education, for tele-health doctor visits, for staying in touch with family. We must boost availability of broadband access as this service will only become more critical and integrated into our daily lives.
As Finance chair I worked with our congressional delegation, the governor and UH to create a comprehensive plan using federal funds to strengthen our interisland broadband network and increase access and reliability into neighbor islands and rural areas. We have the potential to secure millions of federal infrastructure funding dollars to build a secure and reliable broadband network. But this requires a lot of coordination among the state agencies and the federal government. I am uniquely experienced in this area so that I can help ensure we get this critical project built for our future.
We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share.
But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.
Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.