KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii’s next governor will face a host of challenges but where the Big Island is concerned, one issue stands a literal mountain above the rest.
At a gubernatorial forum convened Friday night at Kealakehe High School, moderator Sherry Bracken questioned the top two prospective candidates from each party based on recent polling data about reaction to and recovery from the Kilauea volcano eruption.
Nowhere throughout the evening were all four candidates more in-step than on the matter of whether they would support continued construction in high-risk lava areas. Although precise numerical reports from state and county sources vary, there is no disputing that hundreds of homes and other structures in Puna have been lost to invading lava.
“I don’t believe we should allow construction of new facilities in lava zone 1,” said Gov. David Ige. “I really think the risk involved is too great.”
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, Ige’s staunchest Democratic primary challenger in the 2018 bid for the statehouse, echoed her opponent’s apprehension on the matter.
However, she implied a different sort of apprehension when noting various land rights. In other words, she suggested she would proceed with a halt on building in high-risk lava zones but would do so with caution.
“First of all, we have to be sure the designation is correct,” Hanabusa said. “But I would not support the continuation of building within that district.”
John Carroll, an 88-year-old running as a Republican, said the state Legislature should pass a law prohibiting building in the zones in question. He went on to say if he’d been in office decades ago, such construction never would have happened. He added the developers and politicians responsible for the initial development should face jail time and/or steep fines.
Andria Tupola, a state representative from Oahu and Carroll’s Republican primary counterpart, noted her preference for “county home rule,” or what is essentially the county version of the states’ rights concept.
She added, however, that she would encourage county officials to support safeguards against construction in high-risk lava zones and would support state legislation to that end if it proved to be “the will of the people.”
All candidates noted the immediate need to protect the health and safety of affected community members. But they offered separate strategies on how to manage long-term economic recovery as the island’s tourism business, by far its most lucrative industry, has suffered mightily in the six weeks since Kilauea’s newest eruption began.
Tupola stressed a need to start reshaping the narrative in the national media and discussed options to generate capital for local businesses such as cutting taxes and rolling back regulations.
As for curbing Hawaii Island’s heavy reliance on one industry, she pushed for a focus on agriculture in the “land rich” state.
“We should be the agricultural technology capitol of the world,” said Tupola, adding rural infrastructure must be rebuilt to rehabilitate Hawaiian lands. “This shouldn’t just be important for us to diversify our economy, but this should be important for us because we are an island that imports 90 percent of our food.”
Carroll believes abolishing the Jones Act — which prohibits commerce between two U.S. ports on any ship that isn’t U.S.-flagged, wasn’t built in the U.S. and isn’t owned by U.S. entities and crewed by U.S. citizens — is the solution to several of Hawaii’s economic woes, including those brought about by the current eruption.
“Ships from Korea, China, Japan and so forth can not come here and drop off a load,” he explained. “They have to go another 5,000 miles, put it on a Matson ship and come back here. And that has got to stop.”
Hanabusa stressed the need to revamp island tourism, noting that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the most visited site across the entire state, even ahead of Pearl Harbor.
But as to diversification, she believes much of the island’s true potential remains untapped as business concerns have not properly harnessed the advantages afforded by Hawaii Island’s vast array of ecosystems.
“This island has been under-utilized in terms of what it can do,” said Hanabusa, mentioning the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority as an exception that highlights the problem nearly everywhere else.
“We need to look to the future and look to the true development … in terms of not only academics, in terms of research and the testing,” she continued. “That is Hawaii Island’s (real) value, its absolute uniqueness.”
Ige said long-term recovery starts with “repairing the economy as it exists.” For the sitting governor, that begins with getting visitors back inside the national park.
“It is about promoting Hawaii Island as a destination,” he said. “We’ve talked about trying to create a visitor attraction within the volcano viewing area.”
Ige mentioned a Hawaii Tourism Authority emergency response fund of $5 million that will eventually be put into play to market traveling to Hawaii Island, adding he believes there’s an opportunity now to pursue direct flights from South Korea and China flying directly into Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport.
As to diversification, Ige sited his administration’s continued research into new renewable energy projects as economic drivers, also mentioning NELHA specifically.
Election Day for gubernatorial primaries is Saturday, August 11. Voters will have the opportunity to cast their ballots from 7 a.m to 6 p.m. at local polling stations.
The initial voter registration deadline is July 12, but Hawaii Island polling places will offer on-site voter registration at polling places this year.