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In a freewheeling conversation Thursday about his initiatives and vision for the state, Gov. David Ige reiterated his commitment to the issues that were key to his 2018 re-election campaign.
They include providing more affordable housing, helping people transition out of homelessness and expanding educational opportunities, especially pre-kindergarten.
Ige made no news in his midday remarks at the Plaza Club during a Hawaii Economic Association event, unless one considers it news that Ige will not be running for president in 2020. That came in response to moderator Neal Milner’s prompt. Milner noted that several current and former Democratic governors are running.
Ige said that he and his administration had learned a lot during the governor’s first term. When he ran for governor in 2014, he was focused mostly on winning — something that even members of his own team doubted would happen, given that he was up against an incumbent of his own party.
After unseating Gov. Neil Abercrombie in a historic landslide in the primary, Ige had to figure out how to govern the state. By giving him another four years in office — he was the underdog again but defeated U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the 2018 primary and went on to crush Republican legislator Andria Tupola in November — voters demonstrated they like the guy.
Here’s a few takeaways from the talk:
Even though Republicans and Democrats have sharply divergent views on many issues, Ige said party ideology is less of a factor when it comes to state chief executives. Instead of being driven by party, governors must be pragmatic, he said.
“The fundamental difference between a governor and a Congress person is that, as governors, we can’t pick and choose the issues we want to deal with,” he said. “I have to deal with everything that is presented to us. We can’t punt, we can’t manufacture money to solve challenges, we have to work with the resources we have, and we have to serve the community, the people. And so gridlock is not acceptable for each and every governor.”
Ige has spent several mainland visits participating with his peers in the National Governors Association and the Western Governors’ Association. He currently serves as co-chair of the Council of Governors, an appointment that came from President Trump.
As well, Ige is the current chair of the WGA’s nonpartisan policy organization, and he hosted the WGA’s 2018 Winter Meeting, which gathered 11 governors and 2 Cabinet secretaries on the Big Island this past December.
Ige said he has found common ground, especially on issues like invasive species and biosecurity.
At the NGA’s winter meeting in Washington, D.C, last month, Ige told Civil Beat’s Nick Grube that he did not think federal funding for Honolulu’s rail project is threatened because of recent subpoenas from the feds.
Ige reiterated that Thursday, adding that he did not know what the investigation is about.
He said that President Trump’s recent move to cancel several billion dollars in federal funding for California’s planned high-speed rail project does not mean the same might happen to Hawaii. The projects and circumstances are very different, he noted.
Ige recently visited U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, explaining that the meeting was agreed to on the condition that he not bring up rail because of the investigation. But the governor said he was pleased that more than $100 million in money for state highways has been secured and that the federal government responded “in record time” to Hawaii’s recent series of natural disasters.
Honolulu’s rail system, he predicted, will still be completed all the way to Ala Moana Center as planned, and that it would change for the better the lives of Oahu residents.
The governor is proud that thousands of public housing units have been put on line since his first term and that more are planned in the years ahead. While affordable housing needs will continue to outpace demand, he is confident that the impact will be felt in a positive way.
His administration’s priority is helping people who want to move out of homelessness into shelter and eventually housing. These are people that seek state and county support services.
But there will always be “hard core guys” that, Ige said, have no interest in getting help and “enjoy freedom.” His lieutenant governor, Josh Green, is focused on how to help this population.
The governor also said he was using the $30 million appropriated by the Legislature to set up so-called ohana zones across the state — basically, state-run shelters. The problem, he said, is the state had not yet found out where the zones could be built, and no one volunteered where they could be placed.
“We got no takers,” he said.
Ige said the state would continue with his plan for converting existing classrooms for pre-K use, where appropriate. Asked by Milner about why it has taken so long for the state to catch on to pre-K as a policy priority, Ige reminded the audience that the state has a single unified school district, which makes it challenging to make big changes.
Ige said most people believed Hawaii had a good public education system when he was growing up. That perception has changed.
He also said he believed differences in running the pre-K program would be worked out between the Department of Education and the state’s Executive Office on Early Learning. Civil Beat’s Suevon Lee reported earlier this week about turf battles between the agencies.
Don’t worry about the fact that many lawmakers backed Hanabusa for governor last year, he said. That’s just politics, and people are free to exercise their democratic right.
“I have lots of friends that I enjoy great relationships with,” he said. “I’m always focused on serving all of your communities and I’m very confident that the priorities that I have identified, that are represented in the budget that I submitted to the Legislature and our legislative package, really are a reflection of the values that we share as community.”
Ige said he expected his priorities to survive the 2019 legislative session.
“The fundamental difference between a governor and a Congress person is that, as governors, we can’t pick and choose the issues we want to deal with.” — Gov. David Ige
“I know that at the end of day, the Legislature, if they’re listening to their constituencies and are really focused on all of you and doing what’s in your best interest, that we will end up very close to the same place. I know that past sessions have proved that.”
Ige closed with a personal response to Milner’s asking him about how difficult it is for people to stay in Hawaii.
Ige’s daughter Amy went to the University of Rochester in New York, and she wants to return to Hawaii. But she is married to a Navy pilot, and they lived for a time in Texas and Florida while he went to flight school.
Amy now works in Washington state as a nurse.
“She has experienced the country, and she realizes there is no place like home,” he said.
Ige’s vision, he said, is less about what he wants than empowering people like his daughter to make the decisions that are right for them. If he has his way, he said, Hawaii will be a more affordable place to live by the time he leaves office in December 2022.
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