Name: Jill N. Tokuda
Current occupation: State Senator
Political experience: State Senator since November 2006
The duties of the lieutenant governor include legal name changes, certifying and processing documents, managing official documentation for the public, and becoming acting governor when the governor is away from the state. What would you do outside of these duties to bring value to the office?
As a working mother from humble roots, I’ve had to fight to achieve success throughout life. As Lieutenant Governor, I intend to continue this ethic of hard work and fight for a leadership role in some of Hawaii’s most pressing issues, especially in education, senior care, and sustainable agriculture.
- Utilizing the Public School Lands Bill (Act 155) I authored and passed in 2013, I would focus on better utilizing our state’s resources to address such issues as access to affordable housing, early learning opportunities, and senior living. With strong leadership, we can redevelop some of our school properties to create 21st century learning spaces, increase the number of affordable rentals statewide, and by offering first right of refusal to school personnel, can work at increasing teacher retention and recruitment by helping them not only with the cost of living, but in getting them to plant roots and raise families in our communities.
- I would immediately move to have the Lieutenant Governor serve in an ex-officio capacity to lead the Executive Office on Aging and the Executive Office on Early Learning. From focusing on essential programs like Kupuna Caregivers to increasing access to early learning opportunities statewide, these Offices were established to demand the attention and action of multiple governmental agencies. To do this most effectively, you must have the active involvement of someone who can call on the cabinet and bring all stakeholders together to identify solutions and initiate changes.
- To better support our local farmers, I have and will continue to advocate for the expansion of the Farm-to-School pilot program to become a Farm-to-State program, focusing on getting all of our public institutions, not just schools, to purchase locally grown products. This would create a year-round, stable market to improve our economy and health while potentially also lowering costs.
Hawaii’s public school system consistently ranks in the lower half of the country. What would you do to change this?
Hawaii’s children deserve better and it’s our state government’s responsibility to prepare our keiki to meet the challenges of the future and compete in the new business and employment marketplace. The Department of Education and charter schools must develop and enhance the basic knowledge and creativity of their students. The following are the policies that are necessary to improve the public education system.
Obviously, the most important factor in improving the public education system is to provide adequate funding for the Department of Education and charter schools. As a former Chair of the Ways and Means Committee (WAM), I understand this need and the difficulty in balancing public education against other competing public priorities.
In lieu of raising taxes, I would undertake the following actions to search for additional resources for the Department of Education and charter schools:
- Maximize lease revenues from projects on school lands for new 21st century schools. See the previous discussion under paragraph (1) of the above first question.
- Scrutinize the base budgets of the Department of Education and other state departments to identify programs that may be cut or unexpended appropriations that may not be needed. The savings then could possibly be diverted to educational programs needing funding. This practice was part of the standard operating procedure of WAM during my tenure as Chair.
- Review tax credits and exemptions to determine if any should be repealed. Repeal of credits and exemptions that no longer meet a public purpose may result in the recovery of lost tax revenues that may be appropriated for public education. The Auditor will soon commence annual evaluations of tax credits and exemptions pursuant to Act 245 (HB1527, a bill similar to SB2548 which I introduced) and Act which 261 (SB2547 which I introduced) of the 2016 Regular Session.
Teacher Retention & Recruitment
The biggest factor in the quality of a school is having teachers and supportive administrators that are highly qualified and provided with the necessary resources to teach their students effectively. Good teachers are able to prepare students for the future, nurture creativity, and enable them to exceed whatever standards are placed before them.
The retention and recruitment of teachers is a serious and long standing issue. As both Education Committee and WAM Chair, I have had discussions with postsecondary institutions about their overall pedagogy as well as induction and mentorship approaches to improve retention.
Most important for teacher retention and recruitment is the payment of adequate salaries to live comfortably in Hawaii. Public school teachers are professionals, well qualified in their field. They should be recognized and compensated as such. I have always supported appropriations to fund the collective bargaining cost items negotiated and agreed to between the State and teachers’ union.
Of particular note, I introduced Act 143 to end furlough Fridays for public school students and teachers in 2010. I recognized that students were the primary victims of lost instructional days and teachers had to be compensated fairly. Act 143 was the solution I helped craft.
Other actions I have pursued and will continue to pursue to address teacher retention and recruitment include the following:
- Teacher housing: The development of public school lands under the 21st Century Schools program may be a means to construct affordable housing for teachers and the broader public.
- “Grow your own”: The expansion of non-traditional ways to increase our teacher pool. An example is the University of Hawaii program that assists educational assistants and substitute teachers to obtain their teaching certificates.
- High school pathways: Supporting high school programs to influence or channel students towards education degrees and the teaching profession.
- Teacher support programs: Supporting teacher-to-teacher mentoring and professional development opportunities.
At a more basic level, early learning must be expanded. This is among my top platform priorities.
Early learning and education starts from birth. Highly effective early learning opportunities significantly benefit a child’s development. Early learning ensures that five-year old children are ready to learn by the time they enter kindergarten. That readiness results in a substantial benefit for students as they advance through the lower education grades and beyond.
Only sixty per cent of eligible children access preschool before entering kindergarten. Where you live and your family’s socio-economic situation should not limit your opportunities, but that is the reality for too many of our families and their keiki. To remedy this, more must be done to increase early learning access and quickly train a workforce of early learning professionals.
The cost of rail continues to rise. Do you support future state tax increases to fund rail construction or operations? Why or why not?
While I have always supported Honolulu’s rail project, I do not support a state tax increase that would saddle future generations of residents with the cost of paying for construction on top of the expected operation and maintenance of rail. While WAM Chair, I supported the completion of the Honolulu rail project to Ala Moana Center, but refused to give the City a blank check to do so in the form of a general excise tax in perpetuity. Instead, I worked towards a funding compromise that imposed a temporary hotel tax increase and extended the general excise tax surcharge for only three years. Although this compromise unfortunately did not end the general excise tax increase as previously scheduled, it minimized the length of the extension provided for completion of the rail project.
The following are the reasons I opposed the permanent general excise tax increase:
(1) The additional burden on taxpayers, especially those of low- and moderate-incomes.
(2) The regressivity of the general excise tax, meaning that the tax increase would comprise a larger proportion of a lower-income taxpayer’s income in comparison to a high-income taxpayer.
(3) A preference for increasing the hotel tax because the burden of much of that tax is borne by tourists and out-of-state hotel owners instead of Hawaii residents.
I especially do not support any future state tax increase to help fund the operation and maintenance cost of the City mass transit system, which is comprised of the integrated rail and complementary bus and paratransit modes. The operation and maintenance cost of the mass transit system will rise significantly in the future, and farebox revenues will not be sufficient to pay for the entire cost. The subsidy to pay for the deficit rightfully is a City responsibility. The need for a financial plan by the City to adequately fund the operation and maintenance cost of the integrated mass transit system has been a major concern of mine for some time. See Senate Standing Committee Report 1560 for Act 240 (HB134) of the 2015 Regular Session.
As more housing developments are announced and built, it appears very few actually cater toward Hawaii’s working class. Do you think this should change, and if so, how?
Growing up with working class parents, my family moved around a lot and even lived in subsidized housing for a time. These experiences give me a deep appreciation of the importance of housing especially for our low- and moderate-income households.
As a result, I strongly support state action to make housing more affordable for all.
To accomplish this, we need to increase the supply of housing through aggressive initiatives. State government’s primary roles must be to:
- Provide funding and enter into public-private partnerships for affordable housing projects, especially to meet the goal of developing 22,500 affordable rental housing units by 2026 as directed by Act 127 of the 2016 Regular Session which I introduced.
- Provide funding to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to increase its rental housing stock for low-income families and persons.
- Construct or help private developers construct necessary infrastructure.
- Facilitate private sector housing development that is consistent with environmental and agricultural preservation, good land use planning, and community values.
- Maintain the current housing stock for residential use. In particular, I support enforcement efforts to stop the operation of illegal transient vacation units which divert housing from residential use.
My record on promoting affordable housing is strong. During my tenure as Senate Ways and Means Committee (WAM) Chair from 2015 to 2017, the following major actions were taken:
- The rental housing trust fund received appropriations totaling $101,600,000.
- Act 128 (SB2566, which I introduced) of the 2016 Regular Session transferred $9,500,000 in excess moneys from the rental assistance revolving fund to the rental housing revolving fund, with the intent that the transferred moneys be placed in immediate use.
- The Hawaii Public Housing Authority received appropriations of $59,475,000 for the improvement, upgrade, renovation, repair, and security of its housing projects for low-income families and persons.
Additionally, in 2018, I introduced SB3016 which proposed an additional conveyance tax on the sale of high-priced properties in Kakaako. The proceeds of the additional tax were to be used for the development of affordable housing. Unfortunately, SB3016 did not pass the Legislature.
Is there a pressing issue in Hawaii that has gone overlooked and requires action?
I’ve dedicated my entire career in public service to fighting for Hawaii’s working families because I’ve shared many of their same struggles and challenges. Even while balancing a $14 billion state budget as the chair of the Senate Ways and Means committee, I approached it as many families would when balancing their checkbooks – by sitting down at the kitchen table and rolling up my sleeves to carefully examine our expenses and revenue to make tough choices about what we could afford.
My tenure as WAM chair heightened my recognition that state government must operate efficiently and effectively, with the long-term public interest in mind. If we are to create a brighter future for our current generation as well as our keiki, we must manage our state finances responsibly.
In keeping with this guiding principle, one of the most alarming issues that require more public attention is the outstanding financial obligations of state government. State government has substantial unfunded liabilities for its employees’ fringe benefits and debt service obligations for infrastructure and other projects. Without an aggressive plan to pay down this debt, these obligations will compound in the future. A deferred maintenance backlog also exists that, if not addressed, may result in deteriorated public facilities and infrastructure that are unusable or excessively costly to reconstruct. This backlog may worsen because of the lack of routine repair and maintenance work.
This issue is important because it is a long-term one that may negatively impact future generations. If the outstanding obligations are not paid in a timely manner, the amount of the obligations will increase in the future, much like a mortgage or credit card debt that increases when payments are missed. Then, a greater portion of the state budget in the future will have to be diverted to pay the increased obligations, diverting state resources from necessary public programs and facilities or requiring tax increases to generate new revenues.
As a mother of two young sons, I was very concerned about the outstanding obligations issues. To address the long-term problem, I introduced the following measures which became law:
- Act 146 (SB158) of the 2015 Regular Session which requires the six-year program and financial plan and budget to include information on pension and other post-employment benefit liabilities.
- Act 149 (SB253) of the 2015 Regular Session which requires the Director of Finance to submit to the Legislature a recommended state debt management policy and debt affordability study.
- Act 150 (SB254) of the 2015 Regular Session which requires information on the estimated operational costs of proposed capital improvement projects and deferred maintenance costs of state-owned buildings, facilities, and other improvements to be summarized in budget documents.
- SB2554 of the 2016 Regular Session, a constitutional amendment approved by the voters, that allows the Legislature to appropriate excess general funds to pre-pay general obligation bond debt service or public employees’ pension and health insurance liabilities. Pre-paying the obligations is intended to reduce future payments by the State, much like pre-paying a mortgage that reduces interest payments by a homeowner.
- Act 233 (SB2542) of the 2016 Regular Session which establishes a full funding policy and budgetary procedures for routine repair and maintenance of state-owned buildings, facilities, and improvements, including Judiciary-owned facilities. Act 233 is intended to prevent state buildings, facilities, and improvements from deteriorating and exacerbating the deferred maintenance backlog.
- Act 210 (SB724) of the 2017 Regular Session which requires the Department of Budget and Finance to submit to the Legislature before the 2019 regular session a report with estimates for fiscal year 2018-2019 and fiscal year 2019-2020 of general fund appropriations and expenditures for non-discretionary costs.