Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with Gov. David Ige Friday in a wide-ranging interview. The governor began by walking us through a PowerPoint presentation, titled “Leading Hawaii Through the Pandemic,” which can be viewed at the end of this article. Here are some of the highlights from our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Civil Beat: Governor, it’s budget time, obviously. There’s a lot of interest in what sort of assumptions you’re making about what’s going to come up in the near future. For example, the Council on Revenues is figuring that tax collections are going to bounce by about $500 million in the next fiscal year, which obviously implies there’s going to be a big resurgence in tourism. Wondering if you agree with that or if you’ve made other assumptions and also what your assumptions are about federal aid.
Ige: Obviously we are advocating for it, but I do have to submit my budget and financial plan to the Legislature and we’re proceeding just assuming that there will be limited additional aid from the federal government. As you guys are aware, the state of Hawaii has received $10 billion in federal aid. Some of that has gone directly to taxpayers. A lot of that has gone to businesses and in the form of paycheck protection programs, they’ve provided direct aid to nursing homes and hospitals. And so clearly, we hope that that aid will be coming.
But we’ve really built our budget on what we know today, as I’m required to do by law and by (the) constitution. And so we continue to be hopeful that there will be additional federal support. But at this point in time, we’re just assuming that federal funding levels will be as previously has occurred prior to the pandemic response.
Are you buying the Council on Revenues projection that there’s going to be a significant bounce in tourism and tax collections? And is that the basis of your budget?
We have based our budget on their last projection, which is the last formal one delivered in September. And then we are looking at and waiting for their projection that they’ll make in January. When we look at what’s happening and the number of visitors and we look at tax collections to date, we are seeing an improvement. But it has been slow.
I don’t want to prejudge what the council will be doing. Whatever forecast change they make, we will be looking at that. I see a very difficult way to see, you know, a $500 million increase.
You sound skeptical that the balance will be that large.
Well, when you looked at our tax collections in November that we just published — we’ll be distributing shortly — certainly the big concern that I have given, if you look at it, GET tax collections, which, as you know, is the biggest source of funds. Revenues for the state of Hawaii is down 24% year to date.
The DOE just announced their furlough plan. What is your specific concern about the possibility that we could be taking away more instructional days this academic calendar? And do you have any specific guidance on how to best minimize loss of those academic days?
We definitely have been working with the department and with the furloughs. The furlough savings that we’re expecting from the Department of Education in the remainder of the current academic year is less than we are seeking from other state employees. So we do recognize and we don’t want to get into the situation where the amount of instructional time is reduced to the point that students would not be able to be promoted and get graduated to the next grade level.
The reductions that we are seeking are, I think, about half or just over half of what we’re looking to get from other agencies at this point in time, at least for the remainder of the academic year.
The unions, particularly the HSTA, have been very vocal about pushing back against your furloughs announcements and also expressing a lot of frustration that there hadn’t been any prior negotiations before these were announced. What’s your response to their sort of adamant contentions that there could have been more discussions to bring them into the conversation?
When we started the conversation back in April, if you remember, and a couple of the unions immediately went and presented that information to the general public and to their members. And in spite of that, we continue to provide information and we work to engage all of the collective bargaining units to make them aware of what the financial situation the state was looking at.
We’ve informed them of our plans and made them aware that the state of Hawaii, for the first time in our history, is borrowing working capital funds to mitigate the immediate impact on our employees to reduce the level of furloughs that would be required in order for us to manage through this fiscal crisis; we were successful in the private market. As you are aware, we did float and issue working capital bonds in the private market.
In November, we raised $750 million dollars for the first time in the state’s history in order to help us make payroll. So, we continue and we’ve informed them throughout this process about what the fiscal situation is and what level of labor savings we needed to pursue. We made them aware that we were conducting a program review because of how significant the budget shortfall will be and how quickly the budget difference occurred. The state’s general fund revenue dropped tremendously once the 14-day quarantine was implemented.
And so there has been a significant difference between the revenues that we’re receiving and the cost of state government as it operates today. And that’s the structural change that we’ll have to make in order to get to a balanced budget and a working financial plan.
One of the more pointed criticisms about the furloughs that have been made is that our various public unions have a contract. If the governor can change that contract at will, what’s the point of having a contract? Could you speak to that?
Well, certainly, I realize that, but what do you do when we don’t have the revenues to make payments on the contract? I can’t print money. So if they have ideas about how … I suppose we could raise taxes, that would be one option. But I don’t have the authority to raise taxes directly.
And so right now, the cost of state government exceeds the revenues that we’re receiving and we need to take action in order to balance the budget. I mean, how do you respond to people who can’t pay rent?
“It’s hard to find $600 million of cuts in the state budget.”
Governor, since you brought it up, maybe we could speak to the possibility of raising taxes, because that’s certainly out there. And you certainly hear that from the union membership. If the Legislature were to move tax increases and ask you to sign them, would you do it?
It’s too complicated to respond. But I would be looking at where I am required to submit a financial plan and we’re looking at the revenues that we expect that the council will forecast. And really, I understand we set a target for reducing the size of state government and cutting the budget as part of our program review at $600 million. And it’s tough. It’s hard to find $600 million of cuts in the state budget. A lot of programs that we provide are the things that we need to do in an emergency — unemployment insurance, Medicaid, SNAP, all those social safety net programs. Demand for services is the highest it’s been.
But if the Legislature was to come back to you with various tax increases, is there any that would be acceptable to you?
Well, I mean, we’ll look at it. You know what? I’m contemplating a couple of things myself, just to make everything work. And so I think as we get into this session and we’re finalizing our budget submittal, more of that will become evident as we proceed forward.
About the COVID-19 vaccine — are you at all worried that once this rolls out that a lot of people are going to refuse it? There is an anti-vaccine sentiment in this country. How much does that worry you locally?
I would get worried about people who are afraid to take the vaccine, but I’m really more worried for them because I feel confident that the vaccine will be safe and except for very specific exceptions, that most people would benefit from taking the vaccine.
We do have a very strong communications plan and the vaccination team has been working with the private sector people. We know that providing information and responding to questions will be important to get people to take the vaccine. Priority one is health care workers. And obviously, I think they understand the science of the vaccine better than most of us in the community would. And we’re hopeful that a smooth rollout of vaccines for health care workers will at least provide an assurance to the general populace that it is safe for most people and that there would be a benefit to them to be able to take the vaccine.
As you know, we have a very diverse geography here — mountains and islands and so forth. And there are a lot of requirements on how a vaccine should be distributed, including the proper cooling. How much of a concern is that for you and what are you looking to do about that?
I’ve been looking most at the Pfizer vaccine because that’s the one that’s first out of the gate. Pfizer has actually put a lot of thought into how the vaccine would be distributed. They’ve created a pretty creative package to be able to ship the vaccine anywhere in the country. And there are provisions — obviously we need dry ice, but we do believe that we have adequate supplies of dry ice.
“I do read comments on social media.”
But in spite of people saying that cold storage would be a challenge, the vaccine shipping containers from Pfizer would probably be able to sustain the vaccines for 30 days by just restocking dry ice and managing it as Pfizer directs. So I’m pretty confident that we would be able to distribute it to virtually all areas in our community in a way that the vaccine would remain efficient and viable. And clearly, we’re working out and establishing partnerships to be able to administer it to the general public once we get in the volumes that’s necessary to do that.
You said that you wanted everyone to get a test before they fly and before they land here. Why would I spend 150 bucks on a test that is not going to come through in time for me to avoid the quarantine anyway? Are you considering going back to that policy where if you got the test, but it didn’t come in for a day or two, then you got the second test on landing. Once you got both negative things, you could be out of quarantine in a couple of days instead?
This is what I told the industry. I said, look, the state was saddled with the responsibility from those who were participating in the pre-travel testing program but didn’t get the results. And we saw an increasing number of those coming without the test result turning positive upon arrival. And sometimes they were getting their positive results in transit as they are on the plane coming over. And then the state is fully responsible.
And just to give you an idea, what happens when a traveler is positive in flight on the airline, you know, we’ve got to isolate them. We’ve got to identify all of the close contacts on the plane. We have to find a place to isolate them. And hotels were turning us away. We could not find a place to place them.
We have to provide for escort from the gate to baggage claim to some transportation. We have to provide safe transportation from the airport to wherever this quarantine place is. And then the visitors say they can’t afford it and they refuse to pay for it. And then the state is responsible for paying for all of those activities.
I told the industry, if you guys want me to change the policy, you guys take responsibility for this. We have as of a week or so ago, more than 300 people who came in and tested positive after arrival here. And the state has borne the burden of managing everyone.
It’s unfortunate, but these people end up being on the last flight in on Maui or on Honolulu or Oahu or on Hawaii island. And they’re positive and we are scrambling to figure out how to take care of them, how to get somebody to transport a COVID-19 positive patient, Uber and Lyft. And all of those guys refused to take those COVID-positive people and people in hotels were turning us away. So that’s why I changed the policy.
What’s the deal with the continuation of government secrecy during a public health crisis? Specifically, your suspension of Chapter 92, particularly the public records law. I know you don’t read our editorials all the time, but we have an editorial up today saying (you should) lift the suspension on the public records law. Your comment?
I know you guys have issued a FOIA request for us, but, you know, we are getting a whole ton of requests for information from all around the country and all around the world. It has been a significant challenge for us in order to meet the requirements.
I’ve directed our agencies to respond to the requests because we know we have to. But, at the same time, we’re trying to get unemployment benefits out and a whole bunch of other things.
“I try and get out and run a couple of times a week. That definitely helps clear my mind. That’s what helps keep me sane.”
I think the public has benefited in the sense that virtually every board is now doing a virtual meeting so the general public can sit in on all the boards and commission meetings because we’re streaming it or we are providing some other public access to the activities that occur. And I think that the challenge in not extending that suspension is just that — there always come up some incidents or some requirements that we just are not able to meet. And that’s been a difficult challenge.
I’m hearing you say that you’re not going to lift the suspension, particularly on the public records section of 92F.
Not at this time.
Final question: I remember before you were elected and I think even early on in your first term, you used to go jogging quite a lot. I’m just wondering, how do you blow off steam and how do you handle the criticism? I don’t believe you’ve taken a vacation — correct me if I’m wrong — since the pandemic started back in March.
I do run. I try and get out and run a couple of times a week. That definitely helps clear my mind. That’s what helps keep me sane. That’s the only quiet time I have, when I’m running I’m absolutely by myself. It does help to clear, you know, the criticisms. And especially as we start looking at what decisions lie ahead, it does help to get the blood pumping and clear the thoughts.
And it does help to maintain my weight. I guess one of those things Dawn likes to remind me is that I tend to eat when it’s stressful times. And I find that if I don’t run, then I gained too much weight. It’s definitely something that I know will be harder and harder to deal with if I don’t try to stay on top of it as we go along.
Thank you, Governor, for your time today.
Bye, thank you all. Appreciate it.
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