Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 8 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 Simon Russell, Democratic candidate for state House District 12, which includes Spreckelsville, Pukalani, Makawao, Kula, Keokea, Ulupalakua and Kahului. The other Democratic candidate is Kyle Yamashita.
1. Hawaii has been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps the biggest impact is to the economy and the tourism industry, which has been Hawaii’s biggest economic driver. Do you think state leaders have handled the response to the virus effectively, including the approach to testing and health care as well as the stay-at-home orders that have caused serious economic harm? What would you have done differently?
In Maui’s community our largest outbreak was at our hospital. What I would have tried to do differently in retrospect would have been to make sure hospital leadership was aware of the situation, and that they were regularly testing their staff.
I feel that the virus in Maui is under control, and we need to restart our economy, albeit without the tourism industry operating at former levels.
For many years people like me have been advocating for a diversified economy, and unfortunately, now we have a difficult economic situation that was predictable. Leaders in government have had decades since the plantations were winding down to build a resilient economy, and it has not yet come to pass. In this difficult time, we must transition from a service based economy dependent on foreign money, to a local production-based economy that keeps its money here.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
This is a very tough question, I will have to look at it through the lens of a farmer who has an operation that has a bad disease, and needs emergency mitigation measures.
We must balance the budget by growing Hawaii’s economic activity and putting less emphasis on portions of the budget that do not add to the economic performance.
I will start with recommending an audit of any agency that makes money for our state and is not transparent and accountable for their revenues.
The audits will tell us what to cut. I will work diligently to protect the departments of Economic Development, Labor, Health, Education and Agriculture.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
We can diversify our economy with public works programs to prepare for climate change. Some possible projects can be preparing for sea level rise and addressing the shortage of fresh water by building large scale water reserves for drought times, as well as modernized water delivery systems that respect the need for healthy watersheds. Economic stimulus can be had by way of building and renting the low-income housing that Hawaii needs to make sure our government workforce and other sectors of the workforce can remain here, especially teachers.
These projects can be funded by county & state bonds matched with and federal grants.
4. Are you satisfied with the current plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities? If not, how would you propose to meet pension and health obligations for public workers? Would you support reductions in benefits including in pension contributions for public employees in light of virus-related budget shortfalls?
I have never been satisfied with unfunded liabilities and I am especially concerned about our state borrowing money to pay for them. I will propose an audit of the pension fund to assess its performance over time. It seems that the stock market is doing well and Hawaii pensioners should not be losing too much money.
I will propose more investment of pension funds into Hawaii itself, like into our water infrastructure, low income housing and public utilities so that our utility and rent money is feeding back into the system, and leaders in government have an extra incentive to make our local economy more successful.
5. The state’s virus response effort has exposed deep rifts within the top levels of government, including between the Legislature and Gov. David Ige. He will be in office two more years, so what would you do to ensure public confidence in Hawaii’s government officials and top executives?
This is the exact reason why democracies are the best form of government, and I do hope that Hawaii’s voters are fully engaged for the next decade, as we need their full participation. To me transparency and accountability will be the healing salve for this crisis we are in. Talking about problems will not get us where we need to go, we must enact solutions and reverse the jobs crisis and quickly. Bureaucratic infighting will not instill public confidence in public officials and top executives. To ensure public confidence, I will act as a bridge from my community to leaders in Honolulu, and do whatever I can to break down walls in order to get the work of the people accomplished.
In the near term, we must establish visitor testing that is acceptable to the health professionals, and will do a good job of making sure any introduced cases are detected before they spread.
In the medium- to long-term we need to reinvent our economy, and steer the ship of state away from supporting the mostly service-based economy of hospitality, and toward a production economy; growing our food, fuel and fiber. Hawaii can grow its economy from within when we solve the land and labor scarcity, as there is plenty of capital that wants to invest here.
6. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. How important do you see this as an issue for Hawaii? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability throughout the state? Do you support police reform efforts such as mandatory disclosure of misconduct records by police agencies and adequate funding for law enforcement oversight boards that have been established in recent years?
The George Floyd tragedy needs to be addressed fully. Racism in America needs to be addressed fully, and indeed, racism in Hawaii needs addressing as well. There are many levels of racism and discrimination in Hawaii, and I will do whatever is in my power and capacity to support a reconciliation of the victims of this institutional racism, especially when Kanaka Maoli are concerned, as many of my Hawaiian brothers and sisters are incarcerated on the continental U.S., and this practice is inhumane.
I support the mandatory disclosure reform, as well as the adequate funding of law enforcement oversight bodies.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Absolutely and wholeheartedly.
8. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Gov. David Ige suspended the open government laws under an emergency order during the pandemic. Do you agree or disagree with his action? What would you do to ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion?
I emphatically disagree with this decision, as it is a slippery slope toward government secrecy. Good decision making is best done in the light. All public meetings should be made available by internet video, and public records should be online to verified members of the public. I will work on modernizing the interface between the members of the public, and the government of the state of Hawaii so all public meetings (including the presenting of public testimony) are online, as securely as possible, and easily accessible to our citizens.
9. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs? How big of a priority is this for you?
Hawaii should be doing a lot. This is a top priority for me as the poles and ice sheets continue to accelerate their melting in the north and south and sea level rise is guaranteed.
When I am serving in office, I will propose setbacks for any new developments to areas above predicted inundation zones, and contingency plans for any roads, air or sea ports that will be affected. Regarding the reefs, I propose that financial support for breeding of corals be accelerated, and to support methods at helping corals adapt to warmer temperatures and changing pH levels.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue for my district is unemployment and cost of living. I will be proposing a public works project to restore the ecosystem of the East Maui watershed in order to assure adequate amounts of water for present and future generations and our building projects.
Additionally, we can create lot of jobs for people in my district by building the needed low income housing, and build it on state owned lands to lower cost per unit even more. Then the state can generate revenue from the renting for these affordable units, giving preference our government employees, especially teachers.
11. 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.
Hawaii has almost every microclimate on Earth, and we can certainly grow anything here. Hawaii can be food- and energy-secure, as we have the talent and political will. Now is the time to grow the houses of our future and redirect our economy in a productive direction that is less dependent on imports.
When I am serving in the Legislature, I will propose that the state support the planting of building grade bamboo, hemp and other building grade crops to solve our affordable and low – income housing crisis in seven years. We will grow a housing industry that keeps the vast majority of its money here in our economy.
Materials engineers with adequate support can build an industry here that will be sustainable and regenerative. We will grow recyclable houses that can be turned into compost at the end of their lifecycle, instead of becoming a landfill problem as is currently the case.
We have the land, and with current levels of unemployment, we have the labor, now we just need the capital and imagination to regrow our economy in a resilient and sustainable direction. We must no longer be totally dependent on outside inputs to support us, but we can be interdependent across the state to bring materials and talent together to grow a better future for our keiki, and give them a reason to stay here.
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