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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 4 general election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Gary Thomas, Republican candidate for state representative for District 4. Democrat Joy San Buenaventura is also running.
District 4 covers Puna on the Big Island.
Name: Gary Thomas
Office: State House District 4
Profession: Colonel, USAF (retired); small business owner
Education: EdD (in progress), MA, BA
Community organizations: Executive director and board member, Yeshua Outreach Center (for at-risk youth); executive director and board member, Sure Foundation Church; volunteer, New Hope-Puna Feed the Homeless; mentor, Hawaii Youth Challenge; member, Puna VFW; member, East Hawaii Coalition
1. Why are you running for the Hawaii Legislature?
I’m running for office because I care about our community and state, and want to serve. I’ve served my community, state and country in many ways over the last 30 years — as an Air Force colonel (now retired) with 27 years’ service and three combat tours in Afghanistan; as the Deputy Director for Hawaii Youth Challenge, the residential program for at-risk youth; as co-founder and Executive Director for the Yeshua Center, an after-school program for at-risk youth in Keaau, currently serving 100-130 youth per week; for the DOE in special education in Puna, and as a high school principal for two K-12 schools in Puna; in ministry for 20 years, currently the Executive Director at Sure Foundation Church in Keaau; and other community activities.
I serve because I want to help, and I care — I grew up on Oahu, moving to the Big Island in 1991, where my wife and I have raised five children. I truly care about our community — that we are effectively planning for the future of our economy, our schools, and our children. I want to bring trust back to our government, solutions to our community, and hope to our children. I hope to represent my constituency as I have always tried to do in service at any level — caring about what they care about, understanding those issues, and doing something about it. I’m running for office because I see how people’s lives are changed when they realize hope, when they see opportunity, and because I have hope and a vision that Puna will grow as a community with a future.
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?
In managing government budgets at the private, state and national levels for many years I’ve seen first-hand that you can’t ignore or procrastinate on debt for very long before you start to face the consequences. There are a number of municipalities around the country that have gone bankrupt in recent years, and we don’t want to go there. We have not aggressively addressed this debt over the years and we must do so. We have to take a careful look at future budgets and engage the issue in our planning — because it is not going to go away. We may need to make hard choices — to include realigning/reducing benefits and services — but it will only get worse if we ignore it. Recent legislation, e.g. Acts 163, 124, are moving us in the right direction, but I’m not satisfied to date with what has been done — we need to do better, not what is politically expedient, and continue to look at ways to responsibly reduce our debt.
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?
I’m directly involved as a volunteer in a weekly feeding the homeless program in Pahoa, and so see first-hand the extent of this particular challenge facing our community.
While the various food programs for the homeless here allow easy access, there are many more homeless, who for one reason or another, don’t come in from the woods around the town and so are being missed. Many of the homeless are also veterans — of particular concern to me as retired military. We need to synergize the faith community, government agencies, nonprofits, the business community, and individuals toward the common goal of addressing this — something I have done successfully with other programs. We need increased mental health and counseling support, hygiene and medical support, clothing, housing. There is help out there, it just needs to be energized and organized. I fully support Duke Aiona’s proposed Vets helping Vets program, using Hawaii Guardsmen as mentors — I was a Hawaii Guardsman for 10 years, and that is a program that can work. We need to get the homeless on their feet, and for those who are employable, get them on that track. Much of what we did with Hawaii Youth Challenge youth in developing skills, self-respect, confidence, exposure to opportunity, hope — can be done with this population.
4. Where do you stand on labeling genetically engineered food and pesticide regulation? Are these public safety issues, or are the dangers exaggerated?
I’m in favor of labeling GMOs, and pesticide regulation. Why would we not err on the side of safety for the public — our children, our families? I’ve seen enough research to convince me there is more we don’t know. While we certainly need to support our farmers and encourage self-sustainability, while lowering significantly our dependence on imports, we need to respond and move forward responsibly.
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?
Eliminate GE tax on food; drive for and obtain solutions for better self-sustainability and improved agricultural yield toward lowering food imports, more focus on developing and delivering alternative energy sources to the individual consumer, less regulation/administrative overhead and tax incentives for small businesses to invigorate growth and new starts, as small businesses are the jobs backbone for any community. Comprehensively explore best practices in similar environments around the world to see their solutions for similar issues. I can guarantee you, someone, somewhere is doing it better than we are. Rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s look there for solutions — I’ve been doing that throughout my 30-year management career, at the local, national and international levels, and it works, and we need to do it. There are countries that have arrived at creative and very smart solutions to housing, travel and food issues. I don’t have the space here to present what I have seen in what other communities are doing — but we need to look at that, modify and adapt it to our local community, get community buy-in and implement through legislation, or other means (e.g. simply good ideas, such as synergistic/multi-organizational efforts at local community levels, entrepreneurial support, better access to training and education).
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?
It is critical we decrease our reliance on fossil fuel; as we build our capacity in the renewables sector, LNG may be a viable intermediate route to go. At the time of this writing that is well under way, with agreements in place to deploy LNG solutions by 2017, or earlier dependent on regulatory approval. LNG is touted to be cleaner and cheaper, which makes it more attractive than current solutions. Meanwhile HECO plans to triple its rooftop solar capacity by 2030, when the state hopes to meet 70 percent of its needs with clean sources, with grid enhancements making possible increased integration of solar power. This, with the development of smart grids which are designed to better manage energy flow on grids, and better storage solutions, a technology making rapid advances, would hopefully provide the clean, inexpensive long term energy solutions we need to deploy. The direction of these solutions is viable, though I would seek ways to monitor and improve on timelines, particularly with regard to renewables. I would also suspect that with the rapid rate of technology advances, further solutions are around the corner, so I would encourage emphasis on R&D. I would also look to providing support for “off-grid” solutions, as there are many rural areas on the Big Island subject to power interruptions.
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. I’m not sure I see the intent of the law being met if we are charging for search and redaction — paying for copies I can understand in order to discourage abuse of that resource.
8. Are you satisfied with the way Hawaii’s public school system is run? How can it be run better?
I worked for the DOE on the Big Island for eight years, raised five children in the DOE system, and served as a private school teacher and administrator in Puna. As a general rule, the teachers I worked with were dedicated, talented and committed; for many of them this was a labor of love as many worked far above and beyond what was required of them. That said, as with any large system, there will always be ways to improve. Again, space limits me here, but I have specific concerns for our at-risk youth, and our high school dropout rates. As the national dropout rate has not improved over the last 30 years, this is not unique to Hawaii. Nonetheless, it is an issue here. This is an area we can improve, with which no one will argue.
We need more programs that focus on nontraditional learning, which given our multicultural population encompasses the majority of our kids. This would include a hands-on and multi-modality curriculum as a norm rather than an exception, earlier identification of at-risk kids, and teaching delivery that is relevant, vocational as well as academic, and that which gives them hope for their future. We lose 30 percent of our kids because they don’t see relevance, they have fallen so far behind they lose hope, and suffer from a number of social issues. Let’s recapture these kids before they fall out of the system. A number of school systems around the country are doing this well, so it can be done. At Hawaii Youth Challenge we saw an 85 percent graduation rate year after year with kids others had given up hope on. This may seem like I’m preaching to the choir, and many teachers do these things as a matter of course, but it is not applied systemically.
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?
Please see my comments above on invigorating our small business environment. That said, I have always been environmentally-friendly — it’s why I live here. To answer the question, I’ve built a career around a simple tenet: there is always, always a solution — you just have to find it. Anywhere in the world you look to develop an economy, you’ll face certain limiting parameters you have to work within- it may be geographical, population-related, or transportation limited (e.g. developing a deep sea fishing industry in Phoenix would probably not be viable). Here in Hawaii we work within environmental parameters specific to the islands (which actually lends itself directly to the economy by way of tourism). Looking at it that way, the environmental requirements here simply are parameters we deal with in problem solving solutions. Encouraging high yield agricultural diversification, e.g. vanilla, vineyards, vodka, and while invigorating other areas in agriculture, coffee, papaya, macadamia nuts, etc., may be an answer. Look to expand the high tech industry at the crossroads of the Pacific — we have the Maui High Performance Computing Center, the observatories, our universities, tech parks. What do we need to do to grow that industry? What other industries are high yield-low impact? IT, finance, medical, service — to balance growth with protecting the environment, I would start there.
10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?
The Puna District is the fastest-growing district in the state, and recently has surpassed Hilo in population. As is so often the case in those types of situations, services, infrastructure, roads, and jobs lag behind. And importantly, legislative awareness and attention lag behind, putting the community and its families, youth, and future at risk. That has never been more apparent than with the current situation with the lava flow threatening Highway 130 and surrounding communities. If the flow travels to the ocean, thousands will be cut off, with significant implications. There is very little in the way of emergency services, medical/dental services, gas, and food available, particularly in lower Puna. For most of Puna there is an unhealthy dependence on the Hilo infrastructure, which needs to be changed. During the recent storm, ice, bottled water, gas cans, generators and propane were non-existent in Puna.
We need to get legislative focus on this district of 50,000 people. What was once thought of as a lightly populated, rural area is no longer that. At least 8,000 cars travel in and out of Puna each morning and night on a single two-lane road. That is the only access for people living here, and for emergency vehicles. We need to improve the current road to four lanes, which is designed but largely unfunded, and also add viable alternate/emergency routes. We need to find ways to fund that now, not 10 years from now. We need to improve our disaster response, though I will be the first to state the hundreds of volunteers that responded immediately to Puna’s aid, Civil Defense, and Helco, performed admirably. Of greatest impact though, was how the community itself responded — neighbor to neighbor, day after day. Beyond that however, we need to identify and pre-locate disaster response capacity, to include access to food and water. We need, as mentioned, access roads.
We’ve raised five kids here, with kids and grandkids living here in Puna now, as we do. This is home; we have much invested here, which is why I’m concerned about our economy, about jobs, about a healthy environment for businesses to grow; I’m concerned about our schools, about our kids coming out of them fully prepared to be successful and responsible in our community; I’m concerned about our families — that we resolve domestic violence, drugs, and putting our youth at risk with strong, effective planning and action. I’m concerned about our children, that they have hope and opportunity, and that we retain our homegrown talent here in Puna. I’m concerned about Puna standing on its own two feet — not as a poor cousin to Hilo, but on its own as a vibrant, self-reliant community, and in terms of vision, economic growth, and legislation. And I’m concerned with returning trust to our government, that we will faithfully represent the majority.