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 Donna Mercado Kim, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 14, which includes Kalihi, Fort Shafter and Moanalua. The Republican candidate is Cheryl Rzonca.

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

Candidate for State Senate District 14

Donna Mercado Kim
Party Democratic
Age 69
Occupation State senator
Residence Honolulu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

State Senate, 2000-present; Honolulu City Council, 1996-2000; state House of Representatives, 1982-1984.

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

The most pressing, and I hope temporary, issue is inflation. Two equally important issues for the district are the Red Hill fuel facility’s impact on our water aquifer and our aging infrastructure.

Regarding inflation, the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates while President Biden is proposing the suspension of federal fuel taxes. The state can follow suit, but our actions are unlikely to have a significant economic impact, while any local tax reductions will have repercussions on the funding of vital government services. The Legislature approved a rebate for Hawaii taxpayers that the governor has endorsed, and we will see what other steps we can take to moderate the effects of inflation.

The Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility crisis has drawn much-needed attention to the state of our infrastructure, not only at the federal level but state and county as well. I will continue to press the Defense Department to find a solution for Red Hill. Meanwhile, the Legislature just authorized $6.8 billion in capital improvements for schools, highways, harbors and airports, water systems, public facilities and other needs. We will continue to invest heavily in our state infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

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 government has lent its backing to many economic initiatives in the past: diversified agriculture, aquaculture, high technology, renewable energy, international meetings/gatherings, film and TV production, space exploration, and university-based research, to name a few. Some have been very successful, others less so.

I believe we should continue to support tourism. But we can also welcome industries that show promise for local job creation and long-term business activity by offering state financial incentives that attract these enterprises without creating an unwelcome tax burden on our taxpayers.

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?

Housing, either rentals or purchases, is a perennial challenge to improving our quality of life and probably represents the single biggest expense in the cost of living for most local families. The 2022 Legislature just authorized $1 billion to help address the state’s chronic shortage. A sum of $600 million will be for down payments and mortgage assistance for Native Hawaiians, thousands of whom have been waiting for decades for homesteads. Another $300 million will go to the rental housing fund to develop housing for working families. The balance will be divided among programs to create more affordable housing, help renters, and provide shelter for the homeless.

The Legislature also approved a $328 million class-action lawsuit settlement against the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to cover claims of some 2,700 plaintiffs waiting for homestead leases.

I will continue to support state and county government officials on plans to expand the inventory of affordable rental and for-sale units, such as in Kalihi, along Honolulu’s rail line, and elsewhere.

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?

Open exchanges are commonplace between Republicans and Democrats, despite the numbers. I hold my colleagues accountable for their decisions, no matter their party or affiliation. There are also many differences of opinions and solutions among members of the same party so I see no barriers to the open exchange of ideas.

The 2022 Legislature approved ranked voting for special races. Like mail-in voting, which I proposed years ago, if ranked voting proves popular among voters, it may give more candidates of different parties and viewpoints an opportunity to be elected.

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

Initiative at the state level presents problems. In big states like California, the scores of proposals put before voters are mostly proffered by groups that can afford the signature gathering and advertising to promote their positions. It costs about $3 million to put a constitutional measure on the ballot.

It appears that the voter signature gathering process is not very thoughtful or deliberative. Voters are approached at a supermarket or some other public place and asked to sign a petition with little information exchanged on the issue under consideration. Initiative campaigns are often misleading or downright false, and few voters take the time to familiarize themselves with the often-complex issues and make informed decisions.

I see no evidence that elected officials in Hawaii are ignoring or dismissing the concerns and policy priorities of their constituents. Moreover, given the modest size of our districts, voters and the public at large have ample opportunity to express their views, face-to-face or through written communication, with their representatives at the State Capitol, City Hall, neighborhood board meetings, community events, and scores of other gatherings.

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 was a supporter of term limits until I’ve observed the impact of term limits on the City Council, where members can only serve two terms. The drawbacks include a lack of institutional knowledge beyond eight years among the council members. Additionally, council members anticipating the end of their tenures begin looking for their next office and several have left before the end of their terms. Also, members in their final terms have little accountability because of their lame-duck status. Even in states with term limits for legislators, these officials have just recycled between houses.

Incumbents have the advantage of their legislative accomplishments, or lack thereof. Voters have the choice of endorsing those accomplishments or dismissing them by voting for  another candidate. When I ran for the first time in 1982, I was a newcomer with no name recognition and no money, but I prevailed over the incumbent by 29 votes; my election and those of every newly elected candidate prove that incumbency can be challenged successfully.

Keep in mind, too, that there is a downside to incumbency as public officials have to defend their records, defend the platform of their parties, and are under constant public scrutiny and criticism.

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?

I have introduced a number of bills to hold legislators accountable for their actions, from the “gut and replace” in Senate rules to mandating public hearings on all studies adopted. I have supported and complied with open record and sunshine laws on all votes taken. I also supported the ban on fundraisers during the legislative session.

The recent corruption scandals were not due to the Sunshine Law or fundraisers. If any person, elected official or not, chooses to violate the law, he or she will find a way no matter what the laws may hold.

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?

See No. 7 response above.

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?

Despite the pandemic, there are many opportunities for people to come together to air their differences, find common ground and exchange ideas. There are assorted community meetings, neighborhood board meetings, legislative hearings, public hearings by government agencies, and candidate forums during the election season, plus internet chatrooms and forums.

The challenge is getting people engaged, to take advantage of these opportunities, and to participate in our democracy as citizens.

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 years of public service and my work on the Senate Special Committee on Covid-19 have proven to me that there is no “One Big Idea.” Rather, there are many small ideas that contribute to the greater good and a better Hawaii.

For example, the pandemic spotlighted the limitations and weaknesses in our unemployment insurance system, coordinated public health communication, hospital capacity, health care worker staffing, trans-Pacific and interisland travel, and so on. These can only be addressed one by one through leadership, money and time.

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