Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Gene Ward, a Republican candidate for state representative for District 17. Democrat Christopher Stump is also running.
District 17 includes Hawaii Kai and Kalama Valley.
Name: Rep. Gene Ward.
Office: State House, District 17
Profession: Small businessman
Education: Ph.D., University of Hawaii-Manoa
Past or Present Community Memberships: Board of Governors, East-West Center; Returned Peace Corps Association-Hawaii; National Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Association; Rotary International; Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board; co-founder, Hawaii-Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (HICHAM); Vietnam Veterans Association; vice chair, Hawaii Republican Party
1. Why are you running for the Hawaii Legislature?
I am running for re-election for the same reason I joined the Peace Corps — to make a difference by serving the community. While representing Hawaii Kai to Kalama Valley in the state House of Representatives, my purpose is to make Hawaii Kai and Hawaii a better place to live.
Sometimes this means fighting against unwise development in our community and making government operate a bit more efficiently and openly. For example, working with the Hawaii Kai community and the state Legislature, we were able accomplish a few things such as listed below:
• Kept cabins (so far) off of Ka Iwi and worked with Governor’s Office to permanently reclassify the mauka Ka Iwi coast land from urban to conservation land;
• Kept our Hawaii Kai farmers in Kamilonui Valley with lease renewals not so exorbitant that they would have had to go out of business;
• Kept a shopping center from being built on the Great Lawn across from Maunalua Bay;
• Got the restroom up and running at Maunalua Bay finally after an embarrassing four-year delay by the City and County of Honolulu;
• Kept shark tours out of Maunalua Bay;
I am also continuing to work on the following projects:
• Renovation of Maunalua Bay with repaving and renovation of the boat wash down stations and boat ramp that should be completed next year by the Department of Land and Natural Resources;
• Working with the Department of Transportation on the Kalanianaole Highway repaving project for the next two years to make sure it is efficiently completed without undue delays and hardships for East Honolulu residents.;
• Working with city and county to put safety measures in affect at Spitting Caves to save a few unnecessary deaths each year;
• Continue working with Kaiser High School to make sure the $4.9 million appropriation we passed last year and signed by the governor is released and implemented so four high schools in East Honolulu can enjoy the benefits and safety of a new track and football field at Kaiser.
It is also important that I continue to work with the Hawaii Kai farmers whose entire valley will revert back to Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate in just another 11 years (2025) and could change the entire complexion of our community. Ditto the possible lack of lease renewal for the Oahu Club that has been an icon for the Hawaii Kai recreational community since Henry Kaiser himself walked our streets. Theses are just a few of reasons at the Hawaii Kai community level that motivate me to stay in office.
At the state level, there are equally as many projects and activities that have been started and need to be completed. I want to continue to fight for new jobs in the renewable energy sector by promoting my office’s mantra of “Solar on Every Roof” and breaking up the electricity monopoly and promoting micro-grids by making every home its own independent power producer. As the co-founder of the Legislature’s Small Business Caucus with Rep. David Stegmaier a number of years ago, I am committed to continual new job creation, and the energy sector offers the most immediate promise for new job opportunities.
I am also running for re-election to encourage space tourism, a NASA lunar research park, and unmanned aerial vehicles (including drones and driverless cars) projects that are just beginning to enter the mainstream of the US economy. Hawaii can be a leader in these industries and can help diversify its economy away from tourism. I should also mention that in the last legislative session, I co-founded the AeroSpace Caucus with Rep. McKelvey for the purpose of developing these industries (and the regulation of drones).
In addition I am running for re-election because of the need for major educational reform, and the need for more government transparency. College tuition must be made affordable again and I have introduced “Pay it Forward” legislation to make this happen. Likewise government records and the proceedings of the legislature need to be made more accessible by the public at little or no cost.
I believe my background and experience in the public and private sector, combined with international diplomacy, lend themselves to getting the above jobs done for our community and state. I have eight terms of legislative experience in the Hawaii House of Representatives, and know most of the key decision-makers in the state hierarchy. I am the Minority Leader Emeritus, and Vice-Chair of the Business and Economic Development Committee and consider myself a vocal member of the loyal opposition that can speak boldly for the people of Hawaii not just for a political party or ideology. Prior to entering the State House, I served on the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board and was recently a presidential appointee in USAID’s Office of Democracy in Washington, D.C. I have been a retailer in Waikiki with my wife, Faredah, as well as having founded a non-profit company that has trained over 3,000 small businesses in 10 countries, the Hawaii Entrepreneurship Training and Development Institute (HETADI) with the late Dr. George Kanahele.
This local experience is aided by a broader perspective of my international experience that includes serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in North Borneo, serving in Malawi Africa with the United Nations, and most recently I was the Peace Corps country director in East Timor. I was a translator-interpreter in Vietnam, and also speak Malay and Indonesian. I earned a BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and was an East-West Center degree scholar.
In summary, I feel I am wired, trained, and qualified to continue serving the people of Hawaii Kai and the people of Hawaii in the House of Representatives. If anyone wants an upfront look at me and where I stand on any of the issues or to just meet me in person, you’re invited to attend a “Coffee Summit” I have at Zippy’s the first Tuesday of every month, or attend one of my “Beer Summits” the first Thursday of every month. Both events are held at the Koko Marina Shopping Center and have been held for the past two years to keep my community informed.
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?
The state’s unfunded liabilities have reached over $20 billion if the health fund and retirement funds are combined. Basically the Legislature has kicked the can down the road on this issue and has not faced up to the responsibilities of the former generous commitments that were made to government employees. Though this debt was known by leadership for decades, nothing was done about it, and generous benefits continued to be handed out up to a few years ago. The fear now is that there’s a possibility of endangering the state’s bond rating with higher interest rates because this debt has continued to grow and at an alarming pace. Equally alarming was an actuarial report of a number of months ago that stated the Legislature must fund the pension and health programs with $500 million per year – and do so for the next 30 years if it was to erase the level of indebtedness.
With the state of Hawaii having a $12 billion annual budget, paying out a half billion dollars per year on an old but growing debt, is almost an impossible financial as well as political promise to keep. The governor and legislative leaders are assuming that the passage of Act 268 in 2013 will save the day, but I believe it is another sophisticated way to postpone the crisis. A small amount of benefits were cut for new incoming employees after 2012, and $100 million last year and $117 million this year were paid into the system to lower the debt, but the real test of ACT 268 will be in 2019 when 100 percent of the $500 million per year will come due and payable.
So for now, the solution is in place, but the funds are not, and it will take a huge growth in our economy to increase our tax revenues to pay down this debt, and therein lies the solution and the bottom line: Hawaii must become the most business friendly state in the nation if it is to grow its economy and pay down/pay off its unfunded liabilities.
In addition to stopping being so anti-business as a state, there is an additional solution to the problem. More honesty in reporting the state’s annual financial condition to the people of Hawaii would go a long way. At present, there are no unfunded liabilities listed on the state of Hawaii’s financial statements and it is a form of “cooking the books.” Basically our accounting system allows us to pretend they don’t exist each year, and largely why a governor can say “we have over a $800 million surplus” when in effect each year the state is operating in the red and at a loss because future pensions and health benefits are not required to be reported. Out of sight, out of mind has been practiced too long, and the true figures of indebtedness need to be annually, if not more frequently, revealed to the public especially when we’re claiming a surplus. What the state of Hawaii is doing is like a family’s budget not allowing unpaid credit card debt to be put into its monthly expenses until paid off, and hence pretends it has more money than it has.
3. 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?
This is a great question. It’s the one leaders have been wringing their hands over for more than a decade – but with less results than any other social problem. It is a very complex one mixed with social justice, mental health, civil liberties, drug addition, alienation in the nuclear family, and a host of other complicated circumstances including high cost of housing, high cost of living, and fewer economic opportunities in a tourist economy.
My solution? If I were a miracle worker, I would resurrect Mayor Frank Fasi and he would fix the problem — it probably wouldn’t be legal, but he would be sure to solve the homeless problem in Honolulu. These are the times that leadership like Frank’s is truly missed.
Seriously, though, leadership is one of the one key ingredients missing in the equation for solving the homeless problem, and in leadership’s benign neglect, it has continued to grow. For example, leaders at the city, state, and federal level are not on the same sheet of music, nor are the Legislature and the executive branch. A classic example of this was a homeless repatriation bill the Legislature passed to get mainland homeless back to their families, but the executive branch refused to implement the program. Now the Waikiki Improvement Association and private businesses are taking it on their own to get those who come to Hawaii for their free and immediate benefits to be sent back home, with certain criteria for eligibility of course, so not everyone will qualify, less these program be an incentive rather than a disincentive.
The demographics of the homeless population are as equally complex. Officially Hawaii has only 6,000 or so recorded homeless, though during testimony in the House Finance Committee in 2014 a Waikiki clinic testified that it had treated over 12,000 self-identified homeless people, and it is likely that the homeless population has grown much more than by 1/3 in the last two years, as has been reported. Even the third floor mauka bathroom at the State Capitol is now shared by the homeless and legislators; with the lingering odor of homelessness a constant reminder that the problem is far from a solution.
In addition to the growth rate, there is another demographic that is even more difficult to deal with, and that’s the rate of growth of the number of homeless who cannot take care of themselves. It has been estimated that over 2/3 of the homeless are mentally ill or drug-addicted. Even under the most clinical and institutional conditions, addictions and mental illness are difficult to treat and cure, but these are the vary resources that are needed the most to help this large and growing group of homeless.
Hawaii’s Housing First program holds the most promise, but with only a few million dollars it will be able to house only a couple of hundred families or individuals out of the 6,000 who need help. The point is we must concentrate on helping those who are recoverable from being down and out and capable of job training and re-entering the mainstream of society. To date, there does not appear to be any program in the nation that has successfully treated those with severe mental or addiction problems, but there are numerous successes of helping those who hit hard economic times and have not desensitized themselves with alcohol and drugs and subsequent mental illnesses, and are now productive citizens back in society.
Part of the solution will also be a societal paradigm shift in caring for our most needy as well as a redefinition of the rights of society if the entire homeless population is to be on the road to recovery. In the meantime, leaders need to take a holistic approach to the homeless and differentiate them into distinct groups and treat them accordingly, putting women and children and families first in line for assistance. But in the final analysis, the Frank Fasi’s and the Rudy Gulianni’s of our community will still be needed if any of our efforts are to succeed.
4. Where do you stand on labeling genetically engineered food and pesticide regulation? Are these public safety issues, or are the dangers exaggerated?
I believe the majority of the people in Hawaii want to know what they are eating and where it has come from and what has been sprayed on it. I agree that labeling, or some form of identifying the contents of a food item on our grocery shelves will inevitably occur. The difficulty is how to use science and sound reasoning in the labeling process and make it implementable. For example, in the past legislative sessions, the executive departments rejected labeling legislation on the basis that they neither had the funds nor the expertise to implement such a program. This was an honest assessment of the “state of the art of labeling” in the state of Hawaii, and we will probably have to wait until other states move this issue closer to implementation without unintended consequences. In the meantime private sector examples are increasingly appearing throughout the nation. Whole Foods is one example of what labeling could look like in Hawaii. Certain foods in certain sections of the store are clearly demarcated GMO or NON-GMO, gluten, non-gluten, etc.
Regarding pesticides and pesticide regulations, I think science is still struggling with an explanation of what is happening in America’s children. Too many cases of autism, allergies, and behavioral aberrations in our young children are disturbing and most frustrating. Poor science, or lack of exactness in the science of pesticides and GMO have left a conflicted legislature and a polar constituency on both sides of the issue. As a member of the Peace Corps working in some of the poorest villages in the world, I have seen lives saved by certain pesticides and GMO produced foods that have prevented starvation during droughts and attacks of disease. At the same time I see that not informing our citizens of what they are eating or what is being sprayed on the food they are eating, is not what an open and transparent government is about. Bottom line: I suggest we proceed with labeling, but let us not throw science under the bus by being in such a rush.
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?
Hawaii’s infamous cost of living has been so high for so long that many feel there is nothing that can be done. For example, the cost of living went up by one-third between 2007 and 2012 and the price of paradise continues to escalate, yet lawmakers have at their disposal an instant and immediately solution to this, but have never used it.
What I am referring to is an esoteric act of Congress passed decades ago and called by an innocuous name that makes people’s eyes glaze over, i.e. “The Jones Act.” This 1920 law makes the cost of shipping four to five times more expensive than it has to be because it eliminates any competition in our shipping industry between here and the mainland. This has resulted in basically one carrier shipping the majority of goods to Hawaii and by default of the Jones Act, is a defacto monopoly.
How the Jones Act could lower the cost of living is by allowing Hawaii to be exempted from its provision of having to ship goods to Hawaii from the mainland on ships built in America, owned by Americans, crewed by Americans, and flagged as American ships. In other words, allow Hawaii to be exempt from not allowing ships that dump their cargo on the West Coast to also carry goods to Hawaii on their way back to Asia.
The people of Hawaii are paying thousands of dollars per family to subsidize the American shipping industry because we are not exempted from the Jones Act. The rest of the mainland has no problem with the Jones Act, except Alaska, because they are all well connected by river transport, trucking routes and train tracks that make transportation cheaper and very competitive.
So what lawmakers could do is simply carve out Hawaii from the Jones Act and our families could immediately derive a reduction in the cost of living from 25-35 percent. This has been done before and for many reasons. For example, Congress knew of the deleterious effects on the economies of our U.S. territories, namely American Samoa, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands, all three of which were exempted from the provisions of the Jones Act. This means any ship not made in America, owned by an American, and sailing with an American flag and American crew, can ply the waters between the mainland U.S. and deliver goods to and from these ports. Interestingly, the greatest maritime power of all times, Great Britain, still to this day has no restrictions on allowing foreign ships to ply its waters.
But wait, the Jones Act was passed for purposes of national defense and to protect us by not having to rely on foreign nations for our shipping. This is true, and no one is calling for repeal of the Jones Act, Hawaii should simply call for an exemption, and by doing so could strengthen America’s defense posture by lowering our cost of living by getting goods here faster and cheaper.
The U.S. fleet of commercial ocean-going vessels comprises only about 2 percent of the ships in the world. So we’re basically out of the shipping business except for the smaller boats that cruise the mainland coasts and rivers. Because of this, over 90 percent of our ship building facilities have been closed and what keeps those still around alive are military shipbuilding contracts with the Department of Defense.
The other reality is that America’s roads and skies are filled with foreign-made cars, foreign-made airplanes, and foreign-made mass transit rail cars, and we don’t consider any of these as national threats, and we should be able to see exempting Hawaii from having to use American made ships just doesn’t make any sense. Exemptions have been granted numerous times in our history, the most recent was during the Gulf War and the Iraq War when two U.S. presidents suspended the Jones Act so our troops and equipment could be more efficiently and cost-effectively shipped to the battlefield. I have also been informed that the Department of Defense often leases Russian cargo planes for its transport purposes. Even the late Sen. Inouye had called for an exemption of the Jones Act back in 2003 to benefit Hawaii’s growing cruise industry — because the U.S. literally does not make any cruise ships, and his exemption would allow a foreign-built tourist boat to ply the waters of Hawaii after stopping in the mainland.
So while America has never been afraid of international competition and has promoted free trade for the past century, when it comes to domestic shipping to Hawaii, our citizens in Hawaii are the big subsidizers of no shipping competition. It is sad that this protection has to be placed on the backs of Hawaii’s families and is simply not fair.
In summary, the Jones Act is the quintessential example of a lack of political will, but where opportunity to lower the cost of living abounds. Our leaders are either in denial of these facts, or know that most of the people of Hawaii aren’t paying attention to an act that makes their eyes glaze over. But the people of Hawaii understand that the cost of living is outrageous when they pay upwards to $5-7 for a gallon of milk and other high food costs. The job now is to let people know that there is something that can be done, and it’s a simple and benign act of exempting Hawaii from the Jones Act, which heretofore should be known as the “Fair Shipping Act For Hawaii” after we are removed from its clutches. Since this law was passed when Hawaii was not a state, we now have the opportunity to speak out loud and clear about how anti-Hawaii this law is.
6. Would you support using liquefied natural gas as part of the state’s energy sources? And how can we improve the electrical distribution system so more renewable energy can be utilized to bring costs down?
This question is directly related to the previous question regarding the cost of living. LNG is in abundant supply in our nation and is still cheap compared to the other fossil fuels we are using to produce electricity in our state and the $6 billion we export each year to maintain the status quo with imported petroleum — primarily from Indonesia.
We definitely need to explore the use of LNG and I fully support the idea. If we don’t do this and one or both of our oil refineries shuts down, then we’ll be in really big energy trouble. This issue was brought forward recently in the Hawaii Refinery Task Force a few weeks ago. Gov. Abercrombie had established the 30-member Task Force by Executive Order on Feb. 19, 2013, to identify the challenges and risks if one or both refineries in the state were permanently closed. The Hawaii State Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) released the Task Force report on April 28, 2014. Interestingly, in a never before stated opinion of the Hawaii state government, the DBEDT report recommends the state seek a Jones Act exemption to prepare for permanent closure of the state’s two small petroleum oil refineries so we can import LNG.
Why the Jones Act comes into play is because there are no American-made ships that carry LNG, it’s that simple. Ocean shipments of LNG require specialist tankers known as “LNG Carriers,” none of which have been built in the U.S. since the mid-1970s and new construction in the U.S. would be cost prohibitive so Hawaii is in a “Catch 22” position wanting to get cheaper energy, but it would have to pay more expensive shipping costs to get it here, so little advantage may in the end accrue to Hawaii by going the LNG route without an exemption to the Jones Act.
The second part the question is even more important and the exorbitant rates of electricity we pay for and what can be done about it. In a recent op-ed in the Star-Advertiser, I opined that HECO was the equivalent of us still using IBM cards at humongous mainframe computers. The solution I proposed was solar on every roof supported by batteries and micro-grids, the equivalent of switching from mainframe computers to the PC. HECO should be a back-up producer of electricity for rainy days and stay in the distribution business but slowly phase out of the production business. Given its present penchant for dragging its feet, we have only about 6 percent of our electricity coming from PV. We should be the national if not world leaders in solar energy. We brag that we are, but so did the one-eyed among the blind do so in Shakespeare’s plays. We need to get serious about getting off the grid and need to speed up HECO’s pace of accepting renewal energy rather than selling us expensive crude oil based energy.
7. 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?
Yes, the more open government is, the less corrupt government is. All, literally all government documents (unless absolutely prohibited by a judge’s court order), should be available to the public at little or no cost, and most should be on the Internet free of charge.
Secrecy and deceit are the ways even democracies like ours steers around the watchdogs in the press, the NGO community, and the average citizen-who has little time or patience to jump through the hoops of the bureaucracies present in today’s halls of power.
I have long advocated that all legislative hearings and all floor sessions in the state Legislature be televised and recorded for the public to see all that is said and done. My floor speeches often refer to C-SPAN as the goal and let the people decide with their own eyes and ears. We are not even close to this yet, but getting somewhat closer with Olelo broadcasting on many channels now.
Fortunately, Civil Beat has been doing some digging, and now even the TV stations are becoming quasi-constituent service trouble-shooters — something that this state needs more of from all fronts as long as we are still a one-party state with less checks and balances than any state in the country.
8. Are you satisfied with the way Hawaii’s public school system is run? How can it be run better?
I recently spoke on the House Floor regarding Superintendent Matayoshi’s potential salary increase to $250,000 per year. I said I would pay her a million dollars per year if she could get Hawaii from being ranked 43rd in the nation and put us in the top schools. We have the potential for this level of achievement with excellent teachers and committed principals, but the structure of the system leaves a lot to be desired. A government closest to the people is the best form of government, and the same principle applies to our school system. The DOE is a huge $2 billion bureaucracy and is part of the problem and part of the solution. Let smaller units of jurisdiction prevail where parents and teachers and the surrounding community can bring excellence to the classroom. The highest correlation of student achievement after decades of research remains parental involvement. This is followed by the teacher and the enabling school environment and leadership, particularly our principals. By tweaking the structure of our educational system I believe we can begin to turn the huge ship of education around to where we are the leaders in the nation. No state’s cultures and ethnicities value education higher than we do in Hawaii, and we have the potential for greatness but have neither expected it of ourselves or have delivered it. If education is the great equalizer in society, Hawaii has a lot of catching up to do.
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?
Our environment is our economy and our economy is our environment. The pendulum has swung to imbalances in both directions, and the battle lines are still drawn along these faults.
One thing we haven’t done is to focus on our competitive advantages as a state. We can diversify our economy by doing what we do best, and this is more than just hotels in Waikiki. For example, we have almost taken the lead in a few industries that could lead the nation if not the world. Our recent developments in “space tourism” and lunar research are nascent high technology industries that could blossom. NASA is in love with Hawaii and we simply have to show that we are interested and able to lead the nation in lunar settlements by investing local dollars and using our technology and our natural moonscapes on the Big Island.
Housing and land use are the other competing economic and environmental issues. We are presently 7,000 units short of housing our population. According to our economists, Hawaii needs about 5,000 new units per year just to meet population growth, so we are behind in housing our people, not just the homeless referred to in an earlier question.
Another conflict between our economy and our environment is Kakaako because Honolulu has an identity crisis. It does not know if it is Singapore or Los Angeles; it does not know where to grow vertically or where to grow horizontally. In the meantime this crisis is costing us precious agriculture lands that are supposed to be protected by our constitution. Our urban core needs to preserve and protect the beauty of our aina and Kaakao is the case study for resolving this identify crisis. Let OHA have only three residential towers that don’t block the ocean view and the crisis is over. The future of Hawaii must be Singaporean flavored or we are doomed to the cement and sprawl of Los Angeles.
10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?
As a former staff member of the United Nations, Peace Corps country director, graduate student and member of the board of governors of the East-West Center, as well democracy officer in USAID, I have long advocated that Honolulu become a “Geneva of the Pacific” where disputes between nations, disputes between warring parties within nations, and cultural, racial, and religious differences need to be explored in a neutral setting. The beauty of Hawaii and our ethnic mix lends itself to being better than a Geneva. We are the home of the Pacific Command covering 60 percent of the earth’s surface, the home of the East-West Center, the Asia-Pacific Security Studies Center and have a host of chambers of commerce and culture centers. We are the perfect place for mediation for resolving differences. Case in point, the conflict brewing to the point of explosion between the Spratley Islands with China, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations is one Hawaii could take the lead on and get the various nations at the table in Honolulu. Ditto the conflict between North and South Korea, as well as military regime still ruling in Fiji, to name just a few.
This vision for Hawaii may not be possible at the immediate present, but we have the long-range potential of being a mediator between nations because in the end, all of the U.S., and the world will eventually look like Hawaii. We are slowly living up to our potential in Hawaii, but too often we just rely on our good looks and not our brains. From our rich and diverse cultures and languages, we have unlimited potential for becoming the chief mediator of the Pacific by becoming “The Geneva of the Pacific.” This is what we have practiced among ourselves and now need to share it with the world.