Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Neil Abercrombie, one of three Democratic candidates for governor. The others are David Ige and Van Tanabe. Three Republicans, one Libertarian, one Independent and four nonpartisan candidates are also running.
Name: Neil Abercrombie
Education: B.A., Union College; Master’s degree, University of Hawaii; Ph.D., University of Hawaii
1. Why are you running for governor?
In 2010, I fought to restore hope to Hawaii. We had lost our way and communities were suffering. We had “Furlough Fridays,” a $200-plus-million deficit, and our economy was in recession. Today, Hawaii is much better thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the people of Hawaii. We have restored the state to financial health, our economy is growing again and unemployment has reach among the lowest rates in the country.
While we are now in more hopeful times, we have so much more to do to continue the course we’ve charted. A brighter future is in our reach if we continue to invest in our infrastructure to grow our economy, advance preschool for all keiki, provide tax relief for seniors, and work to preserve our environment. Together with your support, I know Hawaii can succeed. We can’t go back.
2. 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?
After years of neglect, our administration has worked hard to put the state back on the right track. While we have substantial obligations that will take many years to fully address, I am confident now that we are finally tackling the issue rather than kicking the can down the road.
The funded ratio for the Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) was 95 percent in 2000 before money was diverted from the ERS with Act 100. Since that point, the system has been underfunded and the downward trend was exacerbated by the global financial crisis. The funded ratio has improved since its lowest point and is now 60.0 percent as of June 30, 2013. We’re moving in the right direction and by 2041, we’re expected to be at 100 percent. New laws have been enacted that will help the benefits side of the ERS for new employees which will only help our pension situation.
The Employer-Union Trust Fund (EUTF) has never been prefunded until my administration came into office. With our financial turnaround of the state’s finances, we’ve started to put money back into the EUTF to address its unfunded liabilities. Working with the Legislature, we passed Act 268 in 2013 to statutorily establish an annual required contribution. Hawaii was one of the first states to really address the unfunded liability for Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB).
3. Where do you stand on labeling of genetically engineered food and pesticide regulation? Are these public safety issues, or are the dangers exaggerated?
It’s about balance. I fully support consumers’ right to know what’s in their food. However, we must be sure that this effort meets legal and constitutional requirements and does not come at the expense of small businesses. Small retailers, distributors, and food manufacturers should not be penalized by food labeling requirements. That’s why I’m working with my good friend Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin to learn from his state’s experience of having passed one of the first laws in the country on this issue. I’m also looking to the federal government for guidance and leadership on this issue.
4. Local officials and advocates have worked to address homelessness for years, yet the crisis is growing. What proposals do you have for this complicated issue?
Our administration recognized that if we’re going to make progress on homelessness, we’d have to work collaboratively. That’s why we established the first-ever statewide homeless coordinator. It’s also why I’m working closely with the City and County of Honolulu and Mayor Caldwell. Just this year, we enacted two laws that will keep sidewalks open and clean, the first step to taking our streets back. Together with the city, we are also working to advance the Housing First program. This program has been adopted in areas across the country with great success. It focuses on getting homeless into housing units as a first step so they can receive the necessary services and care they need to get off the streets for good.
5. Hawaii’s cost of living is the highest in the country by many indicators. What can really be done to make things like housing, food and transportation less expensive?
Controlling our energy costs by moving away from imported oil will go a long way to keeping prices for things like transportation and food down. However, we must acknowledge that living in the middle of the Pacific comes at a cost. After two years of lobbying the Legislature, I am pleased that we have finally come to an agreement to raise the minimum wage. Raising the purchasing power of our residents through higher incomes not only benefits our citizens directly, it also helps to stimulate our economy.
6. Are you satisfied with the way Hawaii’s public school system is run? How can it be run better?
Our students’ test scores are up for fourth- and eighth-graders. We have more graduates going to college. The school system is improving and the work of our administrators, educators and students is undeniable.
Change of this magnitude is not without its difficulties, however. Teachers, administrators, and staff have been working very hard to improve outcomes for Hawaii’s keiki. Members of the entire education system team, from the superintendent to principals and teachers, have been engaged in ongoing dialogue and collaboration to achieve one common goal, preparing our students for college and careers.
The process of listening, fine-tuning and improving the system is based not only on data and evidence but also feedback from teachers and principals on the front line. I am confident that the Board of Education, superintendent, and her team can and will continue to make it even better by refining the process and moving forward for the benefit of Hawaii’s children.
7. Would you support using liquefied natural gas as part of the state’s energy sources? And what thoughts do you have on improving the electric distribution system (the grid) so more renewables can be in the mix?
I see LNG as a “bridge fuel” to wean ourselves off of imported oil as we pivot to more renewable energy use. One of the most critical challenges of incorporating more renewables into our energy grid is the energy storage problem. There are regulatory and technological hurdles to get through, but I believe we can do it. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is working towards this goal, and I encourage all interested parties to review the Decisions and Orders (D&O) issued by the PUC on April 29. One of these D&Os directs the electric utilities to file a Distribute Grid Interconnection Plan (DGIP) to address critical distribution system upgrade planning issues. It’s a demonstration of the steps we’re already taking to advance clean energy for Hawaii’s future.
8. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Yet many citizens are unable to afford the costs that state and local government agencies impose. Would you support eliminating search and redaction charges and making records free to the public except for basic copying costs?
I support the public records law. There are real costs to the taxpayer in processing these requests, however. That’s why I asked for funding for a deputy attorney general to specifically address UIPA requests in the 2014 administration budget. Unfortunately the position was not funded but dedicated staff for this issue as I proposed would have alleviated the cost to those requesting these records.
9. There is a desire to grow the economy through new development yet also a need to protect our limited environmental resources. How would you balance these competing interests?
We’ll need to continue to direct growth where it is intended, especially in the urban core where infrastructure already exists. After all, we all agree that we should keep the country country. We should also ensure growth is concentrated in areas directed under county general plans. In the end, Hawaii has environmental laws, state land use and county zoning approvals that are very rigorous reviews. Ultimately, we must trust that these reviews and the substantial public input they included in the process will help to provide the balance we all recognize is vital to Hawaii’s future.
10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?
Preschool for all Hawaii’s keiki. This is the single most important investment we can make in Hawaii’s future. It’s a vital period in a child’s growth. Children who get a head start through preschool do better in school and in life. This is probably the most important issue voters will have a chance to decide during this election cycle.