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 Donovan Dela Cruz, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 17, which includes Mililani, Waipio Acres, Wahiawa and Whitmore Village. His opponent is Republican Anna Hudson.

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 17

Donovan Dela Cruz
Party Democratic
Age 49
Occupation State senator
Residence Wahiawa, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

State senator, 2010-present; Honolulu City Council, two terms.

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

Homelessness and cost of living are the biggest issues facing my district. We are committing to the extension of the Ohana Zones program and rental subsidies to keep families housed who are on the brink of homelessness. Also, we funded a triage center through the Institute of Human Services so that HPD officers have a location to drop off homeless individuals who are the most vulnerable.

For cost of living, we are issuing $250 million in tax rebates for fiscal year 2023, making the earned income tax credit permanent and refundable, restoring or increasing multiple Medicaid programs, investing $300 million in affordable housing so local families can live in Hawaii, and providing $600 million for Hawaiian Home Lands development. These investments will go a long way to addressing the cost of living issues that have been amplified by supply chain issues and rapid inflation.

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?

We all saw our state’s economy collapse as the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered the tourism industry. However, we cannot get rid of tourism right away or entirely. We need sustainable, responsible tourism as we shift Hawaii to a more diversified economy.

Hawaii’s agriculture industry has played an important role in the state’s history, and I believe it should now play an important role in the state’s future. The majority of my current district is former plantation land. Although this land was mostly empty since the end of Hawaii’s plantation era, I have and will continue to work with the Agribusiness Development Corporation, Leeward Community College and other groups to revitalize this land and the agriculture industry. As a result of my work, tens of millions of dollars have been allocated for the acquisition, protection and improvement of not only agricultural lands, but irrigation and processing facilities.

One of my most recent achievements is the Wahiawa Value-Added Product Development Center, which is expected to open in early 2023. This center will offer classes, programs and facilities that will help develop not only value-added products, but Hawaii’s agricultural industry as a whole.

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?

As chair of the Senate Ways and Means committee (deals with finances and budgeting), I have worked throughout this past legislative session to ensure that Hawaii’s working and middle class is supported.

Due to a budget surplus, we can now expect $300 million to be used for affordable housing, $600 million for lot development and housing payment assistance, and $2 million to support food banks. The Legislature is also issuing $250 million in tax rebates. An individual making under $100,000 will receive $300 and an individual making more than $100,000 will receive $100. For a family of four making under $100,000, that makes them eligible for $1,200 in rebates.

We restored funding for critical safety net programs across the state. Dental benefits for MedQuest were restored and we increased postpartum coverage from 2 months to 12 months for MedQuest patients. Also, we made the Earned Income Tax Credit refundable and permanent.

Finally, we need to create pathways so our keiki and young adults can enter into the skilled workforce and compete for competitive salaries. There are thousands of vacancies in IT and labor, and we do not have the workforce to fill those jobs. Pathways and noncredit programs geared toward employment, not a degree, will help keep local families in Hawaii.

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?

Regardless of one-party control, each legislator brings their own ideas and priorities to the table. These ideas and priorities differ because each district is different. One-party control doesn’t mean there is no idea exchange or accountability within the Legislature. Differences within the Democratic Party can be seen throughout the legislative session.

Regarding transparency and accountability, bills, legislative proceedings, and information can be found on government websites and platforms, which can be accessed by the general public. This along with the recent reopening of the Hawaii State Capitol ensure that Hawaii’s public can keep the Legislature accountable.

One-party control can actually prove beneficial to the people of Hawaii. Not only is Democratic control of the Legislature reflective of the political makeup of Hawaii, but it also allows for progress while stalemates and partisanship plague the national political stage.

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

No, I do not support a statewide citizens initiative process.

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?

There should not be term limits for state legislators. In Hawaii, state representatives serve 2-year terms while state senators serve 4-year terms. Term limits simply do not provide enough time to deliver meaningful progress for Hawaii’s people. Not only is there a learning curve when entering government, but it takes time to start and complete projects.

For example, initial steps to kickstart the recently finished building for Mililani Middle School started around seven years ago in 2015. In other words, this single project took nearly two terms in the Senate worth of years to complete. Changing Mililani Middle School to a single-track system will improve the livelihoods of my constituents and placing term limits would hamper future improvement projects.

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?

This past session, we added new positions within the Department of the Attorney General to enforce government corruption and white-collar crime. Also, legislators go through regular ethics training to not violate ethics laws and rules.

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?

The Legislature has many measures in place to ensure transparency and accessibility. All informational briefings, committee hearings, conference committees and floor sessions provide options for in-person attendance or virtual participation.

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?

While there is growing division in Hawaii, I believe a lot of it is caused by disinformation.

One aspect of disinformation is attempting to simplify Hawaii’s issues. Proposed bills, health mandates, and other issues are very complex. These issues can become over-summarized and over-condensed into yes or no, black and white stances. As a result, the middle ground and compromise are overlooked and forgotten.

Disinformation, in general, has become more widespread in recent years as well. I believe this is caused by distrust in Hawaii’s local government in light of longstanding issues such as corruption. Hawaii’s local government needs to earn back that trust, so essential and factual information about topics such as health are believed. This is especially important as we are still facing challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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 would have used this opportunity to pivot Hawaii away from tourism and grow other industries. Many states and countries have fully reopened and Hawaii’s tourism industry is flourishing even without the return of the Asian markets. As long as visitors are coming, we continue to rely on tourism as the driver of our economy.

A major initiative we pushed since last year is increasing Hawaii’s local capacity in skilled employees for the IT and STEM industries. All major financial institutions, hospitals, utilities, and federal, state and local governments require a capable IT workforce to secure classified information and fend off cyber attacks. This session, we provided over 200 intern positions within the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations so we the state can train those entering the intern positions and later retain them as permanent employees in the IT positions.

Finally, we also provided funding to DOE and UH Community Colleges so they can assist our local high school graduates or young adults in receiving training in cybersecurity, the cloud, geospatial, etc., and attaining certificates that our industries want to see in potential candidates. This provides opportunities to those who don’t necessarily want to go to a four-year college, but rather would receive training that allows them to enter the workforce.

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