HILO — Four gubernatorial candidates sounded off Friday evening on Big Island issues before a crowd of more than 150 at a forum sponsored by local business groups.
The forum touched on whether the state should pay to help relocate those losing their homes to the lava emergency, whether the candidates as governor would help ensure the builders of the Thirty Meter Telescope could safely construct the project if the state Supreme Court gives the go-ahead and what the state should do about redevelopment along Banyan Drive and the Kanoelehua Industrial Area.
Business development, affordable housing and jobs also took center stage during the two-hour forum.
Two Democrats, incumbent Gov. David Ige and challenger U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa are the front runners in the polls and in campaign money of the 13 Democrats, Republicans, nonpartisan and Green Party candidates running.
Republicans Andria Tupola and Ray L’Heureux held to their messages of economic development, a more efficient government and tax reform. A third GOP frontrunner, John Carroll, had to cancel his attendance for medical reasons.
All the candidates participating in the forum hail from Oahu.
All candidates except Tupola said they’d enforce existing laws to ensure the safety of workers if the state Supreme Court rules in favor of the $1.4 billion TMT project. All said they’d be working at the same time to ensure Native Hawaiian rights are protected.
“Hopefully with that transition things work out,” Hanabusa said. “If it fails, then we must fill our obligations to the state.”
Ige said his work with Mayor Harry Kim and a group creating a peace park on Maunakea should help diffuse some of the tension.
“As governor, it would be my responsibility to see everyone’s rights and legal entitlements would be enforced,” Ige said, adding he’d create a statewide coalition to talk about a comprehensive plan to protect the rights of protesters as well as the telescope builders.
“We’d look at what assets are available statewide and put a plan together to ensure everyone’s safety,” Ige said.
Tupola said the state doesn’t have the authority to enforce the law because there are no administrative rules in place to do so. Both the University of Hawaii lease and the project itself are awaiting Supreme Court rulings. She said UH hasn’t complied with recommendations in a recent audit.
“Can we proceed with the lease if there is no authority to enforce the law?” she asked. “There are no administrative rules. That’s why it was so chaotic.”
L’Heureux is more of the build-it-already mentality. The telescope will be a great boon to the island and the state, he said.
“I think it should be fast-tracked,” he said, adding however, that the communication among the state, the Native Hawaiian community and protesters “has been bungled from the start.”
All candidates agreed that the state has a “moral obligation” to help those in Leilani Estates and other Puna developments lost to lava, if not a legal obligation.
“The law does allow for the state to exchange state land with those who lost their land,” Ige said. “We are exploring this.”
Hanabusa agreed there’s a moral obligation to help, but she wasn’t so sure the law cited by Ige covered it.
“I’m not sure I agree that the state has a legal obligation,” Hanabusa said.
On the issue of redevelopment along Banyan Drive and the Kanoelehua Industrial Area, Tupola said the state should never have allowed the properties to fall into such decrepit condition.
Hanabusa said the state should allow businesses to buy properties in the area, provided they found comparable property to give to the state in return. Ige thinks the state should be able to extend leases in exchange for businesses’ investments in improvements.
On other issues, Hanabusa wasted no time taking the offensive, saying Ige’s administration just hasn’t done enough.
The issues, she said, “will take a governor with leadership, accountability and decisiveness.”
“We can’t wait four years for this to happen,” Hanabusa said.
Ige touted his track record cutting the cost of government by making financial decisions such as prepaying employee retirement and health funds, saving $1.8 billion.
“I have taken specific action as your governor,” Ige said. “We’ve increased bond rating to the highest it’s ever been.”
How do you improve the business climate in a state consistently ranked among the worst?
Hanabusa wants to create tax credits and incentives and start matching people who want jobs with the businesses that can offer them. She said her first step would be to create a one-stop “navigator” to help industry and investors work through the state and county systems.
“Same-old, same-old doesn’t work, and that’s what we’ve been promised,” Hanabusa said.
Research and technology are perfect areas for jobs and investment on the Big Island, Hanabusa said, citing the many ecosystems and the telescopes as top candidates for job creation and incentives.
Ige said he’d promote the work of the state Department of Business and Economic Development as that navigator and ensure the agency understands that small business must be “first and foremost.” State grant programs already in place are helping small businesses build markets for their products in Japan, Korea and China, he said.
“We do know that small business will be creating most of the jobs in the next years,” Ige said. “We want to help our small businesses.”
L’Heureux would look at inhibitors and barriers to business development. One way to “start scraping away some of that tax burden,” is to allow small businesses a break on general excise taxes until they get established, and then perhaps phase in their tax rates, he said.
He’d push for high-technology startups, he said.
“Why not be Silicon Hawaii,” L’Heureux asked.
Tupola would immediately cut taxes and repeal unnecessary regulations to help business development. She’d also start a vocational training program to provide a workforce. She said housing could be more affordable if construction plans didn’t spend so much time in “permit purgatory.”
Her vision, she said, is to “create a Hawaii where families can call this place home for generations to come.”
Ige, 61, was a former state House member before becoming governor. An electrical engineer, he lists education, housing and sustainability as priorities.
U.S. Rep. Hanabusa, 67, is a former state senator and lawyer. She wants to restore trust in government, increase affordable housing, deal with homelessness and improve public education.
Tupola, 38, state House minority leader, a former music teacher, top money-raiser is leader in the polls among the GOP candidates.
L’Heureux 56, a retired U.S. Marine Corps major, is a political newcomer who lists education, infrastructure and economic development among his priorities.
Carroll, 88, is an attorney who has run for the office three times.
The forum, held at the ARC of Hilo event center, was sponsored by the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, Japanese Chamber of Commerce &Industry of Hawaii, Hawaii Island Realtors, Hawaii Island Contractors’ Association, Kanoelehua Industrial Area Association and the Hawaii Island Portuguese Chamber of Commerce. It was moderated by Sherry Bracken of Mahalo Multimedia.