Name on ballot:
Gil S. Coloma Keith-Agaran
State Senate – District 5
Previous job history:
PARTNER, TAKITANI AGARAN JORGENSEN & WILDMAN; DIRECTOR, MAUI COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS & ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT; CHAIR, HAWAII STATE BOARD OF LAND & NATURAL RESOURCES; DIRECTOR, HAWAII DEPARTMENT OF LABOR & INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS; DEPUTY DIRECTOR, HAWAII DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE & CONSUMER AFFAIRS; FIRST DEPUTY, HAWAII DEPARTMENT OF LAND & NATURAL RESOURCES; ASSOCIATE, CARLSMITH BALL LLP
Previous elected office, if any:
HAWAII STATE SENATE, DISTRICT 5 (2013- PRESENT); HAWAII STATE HOUSE, DISTRICT 9 (2009-2012)
Please describe your qualifications to represent the people of Hawaii.
I grew up in Paia and Kahului and graduated from Maui High School. After college at Yale and law school at Cal-Berkeley, I returned home because Maui is where I wanted to live and raise a family. Gov. Ben Cayetano gave me the opportunity to serve at the Departments of Land and Natural Resources, Labor and Industrial Relations, and Commerce and Consumer Affairs. Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa named me Director of Public Works and Environmental Management. In 2009, Gov. Linda Lingle appointed me to the State House. In 2012, Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed me to the State Senate. My community has re-elected me several times. I continue to practice law in Wailuku when the legislature is not in session.
What is the most pressing issue facing residents in your district and how would you address the problem?
Keeping Maui a great place to live, work, play and raise our families must be top of mind. Residents and our children should have a reasonable choice to live and raise their families in the islands. We must focus on the costs of living—housing, child care, wages and taxes—that make life challenging for residents even in good times. This year we invested a billion dollar in housing as well as $200million for additional pre-school classrooms. We also raised the minimum wage (Act 114 (2022) [HB2510 HD2 SD1 CD1]) and made the state earned income credit permanent and refundable. We also passed Act 115 [SB514 SD1 HD1 CD2]) which provides a tax refund of $300 for taxpayers who earn less than $100,000 a year (or couples earning less than $200,000), and $100 for taxpayers who earn $100,000 or more (or couples earning $200,000 or more). We also resumed funding grants to local non-profits who provide services to the neediest residents and save the State money in doing so.
Rising inflation has significantly worsened Hawaii’s already high cost of living. What can be done at the state level to help Hawaii residents cope with high consumer prices?
We should consider further adjusting tax rates for certain uses (i.e., housing) or products (i.e., local food and prescription medicine). In recent legislative sessions even during the pandemic-induced economic downturn, we made down payments on addressing the cost of living. This year we invested a billion dollar for housing and $200million for additional pre-school facilities. We also passed Act 115 [SB514 SD1 HD1 CD2] which provides a tax refund of $300 for taxpayers who earn less than $100,000 a year (or couples earning less than $200,000), and $100 for taxpayers who earn $100,000 or more (or couples earning $200,000 or more). We also resumed funding grants to local non-profits who provide services to the neediest residents and save the State money in doing so.
Hawaii’s rising gasoline prices are among the highest in the nation. Should Hawaii lower or temporarily suspend state taxes on gasoline to help ease the pain at the pump?
A proposed tax holiday (for either or both State and County gas taxes) is a political gimmick. Simply reducing or eliminating the gas tax does not guarantee that the oil companies will also reduce the price at the pump. The proposal would reduce State and County roadway repair and maintenance funding, and further hurts the ability of the State to match federal funding to make existing roadways function more efficiently, or to expand capacity. Maui, with more car rental revenues than even Honolulu, has the option of using the rental car surcharge for state roadways, but not every county can generate adequate funds without the gas tax revenues.
Do you support or oppose efforts to slow or limit the number of tourists to Hawaii? Please explain.
In the short-term, no alternative can completely replace the number of jobs visitor accommodations and vendors for hotels, restaurants and activities provide. Maui Nui remains more dependent on the visitor industry than other counties. But we can better balance visitor impacts on our local population, infrastructure and natural areas, without succumbing to the notion that Hawaii should cater to and only attract affluent visitors— a Hawaii vacation should remain branded as a special treat but with opportunities for a truer cultural experience.
Can Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy be diversified, and, if so, what can state government do to support the effort?
Any diversification (and this can’t continue as simply as buzz word) must promote self-sufficiency and develop local workforce skills.
We need to be both strategic and opportunistic in shifting more of our economy into areas building resilience— we shouldn’t just chase the same businesses or industries our sister states and other Pacific countries want with pyrrhic tax incentives or benefits. Public investments can advance Hawaii’s own resiliency in health care, agriculture and local food production, and alternative energy. Maui Health System (MHS) now hires nurses directly from the University of Hawaii Maui College (UHMC) and provides on the job training. MHS, needing local medical technicians to reduce off-island contractors, is working with UHMC to develop a program. John A. Burns School of Medicine, with legislative funding, is expanding residency and medical education to the neighbor islands. UHMC, the Farm Bureau/Farmers Union and local entrepreneurs are collaborating to develop value-added products from local crops. The legislature allocated funding to create centralized kitchens for school clusters— federal food safety rules have limited the ability of the DOE to buy more locally grown produce, poultry and livestock. Centralized kitchens will process those products to qualify for the federally subsidized lunch and breakfast programs. The legislature also funded UHMC’s expansion of vocational education to support entry into the building trades. Finally, we can grow local opportunities by building on the growing number of solar, wind and other alternative energy projects to develop, adopt, prove and market the technologies required.
What is your plan to increase affordable housing in Hawaii, and to help the counties deal with homelessness?
We should be clear that housing is needed for Hawaii’s working families that is affordable for what people are paid in the islands, not just for families qualifying for “affordable” units defined and based on HUD income guidelines and limits.
This session, we dedicated a billion dollars towards housing, including $600million to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to build more homes. But we will need to monitor and build on the investments made in recent budgets to directly subsidize (with state and county funded infrastructure) for sale homes to bring housing prices down for local working families and other housing initiatives (i.e. SB3048 CD1– restructures funds available to Hawaii Housing, Finance and Development Corporation to support housing projects; SB2479 CD1– allowing Hawaii Public Housing Authority to develop mixed-income and mixed-financing projects; HB1937 CD1– establishing a Yes In My Backyard working group to identify housing development impediments; SB2898 CD1 and HB1600 CD1 provide funding for transient oriented development planning throughout the islands).
What would you propose to help protect Hawaii residents’ health during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic?
Our health care system has re-invented itself over the last couple of years in response to COVID, financed with federal and state investments in renovating facilities and changing standard operating and best practices. Our hospitals are better prepared and equipped and the development of vaccines and experience with treatments are producing better outcomes (less hospitalizations) even with more contagious strains and variants. With emergency restrictions lifted, their is little public appetite to restore health-related mandates. Many residents, however, have continued to heed CDC and health provider advice on appropriately maintaining social distancing, mark wearing, and following good hygiene practices. For others, COVID has become a politicized topic and our best strategy is to promote good health practices to protect ourselves and the most vulnerable in our population.
Hawaii isn’t likely to see a repeat of this year’s $2 billion revenue surplus which allowed higher-than-normal spending on state programs and projects. If elected, what will your top spending priorities be?
While economists now expect Hawaii’s visitor economy to continue recovery in a more rapid way than expected (for example, I was told recently that Maui air travel arrivals are now exceeding pre-pandemic arrival numbers), the legislature must continue to prudently use the taxes and fees collected, and limit spending on new or recurring government uses to what will make Hawaii a better place to live, work, play and raise our families. Education, health and human services should continue to get the bulk of general tax revenues in the State budget.
What, if anything, should state government do in response to the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade?
Given the current make up of the legislature, Hawaii is unlikely to follow the lead of mainland states in restricting reproductive rights in the near term. In 1970, even prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade, , 410 U.S. 113 (1973) U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hawaii was the first state to legalize abortion (codified currently at Haw. Rev. Stat. §453-16(b)-(c)).
Later, the 1978 Hawaii State Constitution adopted by our residents added an explicit right to privacy in our Bill of Rights (Article I, Section 6: “ The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.”). Consequently, the basis for certain personal rights in Hawaii is specified in our constitutional language. Our privacy constitutional right also mandates the legislature to “take affirmative steps to implement this right.” Consequently, legislators need to be vigilant in safeguarding access to family planning and other health care services.
What should state government do to support and improve public education in Hawaii?
Public education is crucial for a strong community. Education is a community responsibility requiring the purposeful engagement of parents, business leaders and others who live and work on our respective islands. First, we must be committed to our local schools, building confidence that our children will receive a quality education in the school located near our home. Second, we need parents and community leaders to be involved in our local schools. Third, we need to support educators in making sure that they have the facilities and supplies required to provide a learning environment conducive for them to teach and safe for our children to learn.
We’ve worked for several sessions to address concerns from teachers and the board of education about recruitment and retention of educators, including providing financial incentives for shortage areas. HB1600 CD1 includes funding for re-pricing which will allow the Governor/DOE to collectively bargain with the various public worker unions to address compression and salary discrepancy issues, and SB2707 CD1 mandates the Governor to negotiate. SB2819 CD1 shifts cost issues properly into collective bargaining. SB2359 HD1 establishes K- 12 expanded teaching cohort programs in each county for students who are pursuing undergraduate degrees in education.
With Superintendent of Schools Hayashi finally in place, we should work with him on the areas he and the BOE identify to strengthen schools and provide opportunities for our students.
As a legislator from a multi-island county with rural schools, I support looking at some minimum funding outside of the number of students enrolled (the current Weighted Student Formula (WSF)) for whole school funding. Every school should have a certain level of non-teacher staffing support, including health officials/nurses, counselors, maintenance workers, etc. and technology (i.e., the pandemic proved that our rural/neighbor island communities lack adequate and accessible broadband to support virtual learning). As the next Governor implements the federal broadband investment, I would want rural and neighbor islands prioritized rather than simply augment resources in urban Honolulu.
What reforms, if any, would you propose to make local government more transparent to the public?
The Hawaii Capitol, before the pandemic, was more open to residents than most other States’ legislative buildings. The pandemic closure of the Capitol accelerated the legislature’s investment in and expansion of technology facilitating virtual participation/hearings. This provided opportunities for neighbor islanders to testify without incurring the time and expense of traveling to Honolulu and should continue. The Senate rules set out the different standing committees and their areas of jurisdiction (indicating what kinds of proposals would be assigned to those committees), and can also adjust the Senate’s practices.
Do you support or oppose the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Big Island and why?
I support astronomy as an area where Hawaii has advantages over other locations and in some regards is a modern reflection of the native cultural heritage as star navigators. However, Hawaii residents and communities need more benefits from the observatories located on Mauna Kea. As a member of the Senate Higher Education and the Senate Ways and Means committees, I supported HB2024 which proposed shifting Mauna Kea oversight from the University of Hawaii to new Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority. I was also a Senate co-chair of the conference committee (led by co-chair Donna Mercado Kim) that completed negotiations over the final language adopted by the legislature, HB 2024 HD1 SD2 CD1. The bill mandates that “leases for astronomical observatories specify at least seven percent of reserved viewing or observing time for the University of Hawaii, and further requiring the University of Hawaii to give priority for reserved viewing or observing time to certain Hawaii students and projects of the University of Hawaii at Hilo Imiloa Astronomy Center.”
As reported in the conference committee report, the conferees “find that it is the policy of the State to support astronomy that is consistent with a mutual stewardship paradigm “in which ecology, the environment, natural resources, cultural practices, education, and science are in balance and synergy. . . .” The new Authority will create a framework “[l]imiting the number of observatories and astronomy related facilities;. . . [p]rioritizing, over the use of undeveloped lands, the reuse of footprints of observatories that are scheduled for decommissioning, or have been decommissioned, as sites for new facilities or improvements; and . . . [a] set of principles for returning lands used for astronomy research to their natural state whenever observatories on those lands are decommissioned or no longer have research or educational value.” The new law specifically requires the University of Hawaii to decommission the California Institute of Technology Submillimeter Telescope and the University of Hawaii at Hilo Hoku Kea Teaching Telescope.
Is there anything more that you would like voters to know about you?
I’m Central Maui’s State Senator, representing the community where I grew up, raised my family, live and work. I have served as Vice Chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee since 2018; I previously chaired the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee from 2015-17, and led the House Judiciary Committee from 2011-12. Although my roots are firmly on Maui, I have had the opportunity to live on the east coast, the west coast, and the big city of Honolulu. My experiences have shaped a lot of my thinking about both Maui’s present and Maui’s future– which I believe can be a bright one. I love this place. I love its people. And this is why I made a conscious decision many years ago that this is where I wanted to live.
Whether we were born on Maui, or moved here, or moved back after seeing America, we all have more choices and opportunities today — thanks to the courage, dedication and sacrifice of prior generations. Public service is an honor to repay a small bit of that history and legacy.
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