It’s been nearly two years since Honolulu’s $5.2 billion rail project was center stage in a major televised debate between politicians.

But during an AARP-sponsored encounter between U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa Tuesday, it was back at the forefront as the senatorial candidates offered sharply different proposals to keep the project funded.

While neither candidate discussed the merits of the rail system, they disagreed about whether or not to extend the general excise tax to pay for it and whether the federal government should provide additional funding in the future.

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U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz at the KHON debate on July 15, 2014.

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Hanabusa said she would absolutely seek more money from the nation’s capital to complete the project if the $1.55 billion the feds have already provided isn’t sufficient to supplement the funds that Hawaii is generating.

She also seemed to support an extension of the GET, which currently funds the rest of the rail system. It is scheduled to expire in 2022.

Hanabusa said it’s up to citizens — through their legislators — to decide whether to extend the tax to continue funding rail.

“We’ll do what the people of the state of Hawaii want,” Hanabusa said. “Right now I have all indications that they would want (rail) completed, so I would support (an extension).”

But Schatz offered another view, saying it’s up to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which is overseeing construction and the operation of rail, to make sure the project comes in on budget.

“I don’t think it’s wise for us to talk about new revenue streams — either federal appropriations, federal grants or new tax revenue,” Schatz said. “They’ve got to finish the job.”

He added that it’s also important to monitor rail’s progress moving forward to make sure “we don’t spend a penny more than is absolutely necessary.”

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Sen. Schatz speaks during the debate on KHON.

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The focus, he said, is on making sure that the project is done right.

“How do we make sure that we build communities rather than run them over?” Schatz said. “How do we facilitate affordable housing? How do we protect the environment and cultural sites?”

Tuesday’s forum was the second of three scheduled televised debates before the Aug. 9 primary. The final debate is set for Thursday on Hawaii News Now.

Both candidates have already appeared together at a number of other less confrontational forums in which they discussed issues ranging from Social Security and other entitlements to Native Hawaiian sovereignty and the legacy of the late-U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

Hanabusa was on the offensive Tuesday, much as she was in the July 7 televised debate.

She worked hard to tie Schatz to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who has a low approval rating and has been polling behind state Sen. David Ige in recent polls.

The congresswoman described Abercrombie as Schatz’s “mentor” as she directly asked the senator what role age should play in the election.

Abercrombie said one of the reasons he picked Schatz, then lieutenant governor, to fill the late-U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s seat in 2012 was because he was younger than Hanabusa — Inouye’s chosen successor — and could build more seniority for Hawaii in the Senate.

She also said repeatedly that a 2011 proposal to tax pension income was part of an Abercrombie-Schatz administration.

When Schatz distanced himself from the measure, saying he and Abercrombie didn’t always agree, Hanabusa countered by pulling out a photo showing the two men together during the 2011 pension debates.

Hanabusa said that Schatz described a pension tax proposal at that event as “tough but needed.”

She then offered the senator a copy of the photo.

It wasn’t her only stab at a gotcha moment.

When Schatz said he had not made age into an issue in the election, Hanabusa pulled out a controversial memo to attract donors that the Schatz campaign produced early in the race.

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U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa during the second of three televised Democratic Party senatorial debates.

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That tactical document said, among other things, that Hanabusa was running an inferior campaign, ethnicity would not play a decisive role in the election and that Schatz’s endorsements far exceeded those of his challenger.

But Hanabusa focused on the portion of the document saying that Schatz, as the younger candidate, would have the ability to rack up more seniority in the Senate.

The representative argued that the statement was Schatz’s campaign making age into an issue despite the senator’s persistent denials.

“Your own little memo that you sent around says that,” she said before quoting from the memo. “That’s one of the issues that you raise in your own, I guess, propaganda that you send out.”

Schatz said he wasn’t aware of the language used in the memo, saying he doesn’t like it or approve of it.

You can watch a replay of the debate on KHON’s website.


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