Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with Hawaii Gov. David Ige on Tuesday. He began with an explanation of why the list of bills he is considering for possible veto was so lengthy. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity and with an eye toward saving some of it for separate stories.

The vetoes were really acknowledging that where we are today is very different than where the Legislature was a month ago when they actually had to make many of the decisions that they did. The economy is brightening. We are seeing improvements. The Safe Travels program has been successful in helping to restore our economy. I just checked the statistics. We just went over 4.2 million visitors that we brought in since the start of that program.

Some of the vetoes are really recognizing that some of the measures proposed — for example, taking all the (transient accommodations tax) from the counties and the convention center to fund the general fund — it’s not so urgent or necessary at this point in time. Shutting down the Tobacco Settlement Fund, some of the other trust funds, some of the tax increases, the conveyance tax increase in House Bill 54 — we’re not in as dire a budget situation as the Legislature was looking at when they concluded the session. And certainly that drove some of the decisions on some of the vetoes that we’re proposing.

Gov. David Ige met with the Civil Beat Editorial Board and several reporters Tuesday to elaborate on his reasons for possibly vetoing some bills. Screenshot

It seems like it took the pandemic to finally get us teleconferences and having video access to hearings and so forth. What are you planning to do going forward to make sure that the public still has good access to public hearings — and not just at the Legislature, obviously, but with boards and commissions and that kind of thing?

As a Cabinet we are talking about transitioning back to what will become the new normal. And my direction to all the directors is really to take the best of the lessons learned and try and incorporate (them) in ongoing activities about how you operate.

For boards and commissions, again, most of them were broadcasting and streaming every single hearing. They were taking testimony via Zoom and teleconference. They actually also made arrangements to have sites in other areas across the state so that people who may not have had electronic access would be able to go to a place and participate. And nobody showed up at the remote sites. I guess we underestimated everybody has access to Zoom or WebEx or Teams or whatever the technology of the day is.

So that makes it a lot easier for us. We’re trying to be thoughtful. I know in the past the library has been an important access point, and once we get them back open fully, that might be another access point in the future.

We’re not in as dire a budget situation as the Legislature was looking at when they concluded the session.

But every board is really going to be thinking about how to move in this hybrid manner, to allow for streaming of the activities and recording. And then how do we incorporate the testimony in a way that doesn’t bog down the meeting floor or doesn’t end up extending the length of the meeting so that it becomes very unbearable from even the public perspective, as well as the board members in fulfilling their duties.

Are we going to require everyone to get back to the office once we get back to normal? Are we going to allow people to telework once or twice a week? And then, really, how do you deal with employees who have to physically be present and they just don’t have the opportunity to telework? How do you make accommodations or how do you treat them fairly in light of those who can really telework? The state is dealing with that and trying to think through that.

Another question is about the (suspended) public records law. When are you going to fully re-implement that and what would be the justification for not doing that right now?

I wish we could give you all of the public records requests we get, it’s an endless stream. Most of them are so open-ended that it does take a lot (to respond). I can see if somebody submits a request for a specific issue. If somebody wanted to know about House Bill 862, we definitely can provide that. UIPA requests that asks for all our emails dealing with legislation ends up being such a burden to go through all the records and try and determine, protect privacy rights and redact client privilege and all of those kinds of things that we just need to do, and then turn around and provide that information to those requesting is just a huge challenge when we are already asking many of our people to work 60 and 80 hours a week dealing with the pandemic.

The governor is still refusing to lift his emergency suspension of Hawaii’s open records law, saying that complying with it remains a burden during the pandemic. Screenshot

We’ve had to try to make choices, but my instructions to our Cabinet is we are walking back those exemptions. And as we progress through the pandemic, we will get to the point where we will reinstate the law, and it certainly will happen sooner rather than later. We are trying to be pragmatic in recognizing that we need to be able to do our jobs in an efficient way.

But I also remind the Cabinet that we do have a duty to the general public and we should not be abusing the emergency and ignoring all public access laws. We need to continue to comply with the spirit of the laws. And clearly, in an emergency, we acknowledge that there is conflict in being able to respond to these requests and continue to operate in a way that we can serve the public.

So are you saying that you’ve gotten a lot more public records requests during the pandemic or since you suspended the UIPA, or was it just kind of normal flow, as usual, that you’ve been having trouble with or you feel like is a burden to respond to?

It definitely was an increase in the requests, and especially because it’s a global environment. We do get requests not only from Hawaii but across the country and around the world. So it is a constant challenge to respond to these requests. It definitely was an increase during the pandemic because of the nature of the pandemic over and beyond what typically would happen.

You (might veto) the legislation that would require disclosure of schools if there was a COVID-19 incident. Can you speak more as to why you did that? What is wrong with just having a public disclosure? 

I think the challenge that we have in that instance with the public schools specifically, but we’ve had similar requests in virtually every industry. People are upset that we won’t say that it’s restaurant X, Y and Z that had the positive case. From the public health perspective, it’s a balancing act because businesses understand that having a positive COVID-19 case can shut down your business and ruin your economic viability, and if they feel like that can happen, then they would be less inclined to participate and help with the contact tracing.

We’ve had incidents where we have a positive case and we interview the positive case and they refuse to tell us who they met with, where they were, they refused to give us any information. And that really puts the public at risk. If we are not able to identify the contact, we are not able to inform those that have been exposed and we can’t get them health services in a way that would reduce the risk of infection. So we do believe that right now we have a good balance of public disclosure for school cases.

Washington Middle School sign during COVID-19 pandemic.
Ige says he may veto a bill making public the names of schools where new cases of COVID-19 are reported, saying he is comfortable with the current Department of Education policy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

I know that there are some that want us to identify the specific schools, the large schools. It probably doesn’t make as big a difference as it does for a small school. And in every instance, everyone who has been identified as a close contact will be contacted and informed that they have been exposed and that we will give them the information they need to get tested and treated.

I think the impetus on that veto is that we do believe that the current process works. We are committed to ensuring that every close contact identified is informed of their exposure. And we do provide them access to testing or services as necessary and to mandate by law that we would identify the specific school, regardless of the situation, we think diminishes the public health perspective of that disclosure.

I know that it’s easier to just say, yeah just disclose the specific school by name and everyone would be better for it. But we have seen instances where that really causes the institution, the employees, everyone to want to hide the fact that there’s a COVID case and that really doesn’t help us in the public health perspective. Our public health experts just say that it’s not good policy.

On the correctional system’s inability to count who is vaccinated, just recently I spoke with an inmate who was issued a vaccination card after he was vaccinated. I don’t understand why that’s deemed to be acceptable, given the risks to the people who are inside, including staff and the security issues. Why is the prison system being given a pass on making sure of at least knowing who is vaccinated and knowing what proportion?

So it’s a couple things, right? For one, yes, in fact, the vaccinations that the department administers directly, they do have a record, but they have no record of anybody else who got vaccinated somewhere else. We’ve sent teams in to offer vaccinations to staff and inmates. And when we administer it, we do have that record. But many employees went to CVS or MinuteClinic or any of those places to get vaccinated. And we don’t have a record of those employees. That ends up being a large portion of who’s vaccinated.

We can ask them if they’ve been vaccinated. But they’re pretrial detainees, people incarcerated, they’re not exactly the most cooperative people in the world all the time. And so certainly we can ask if they’ve been vaccinated, and they can choose to disclose that information. If they say they’ve been vaccinated and we didn’t do it — I mean, we can believe that they did, but we don’t have certainty. So when you ask what is the percentage of inmates or what is the percentage of employees that are vaccinated, we have a hard time telling you what that answer is because we’re not certain.

We’ve talked about mandating vaccination for all employees at the jails. We’ve tried to figure it out.

We’re not requiring employees to get vaccinated. Some we administered because we offered that opportunity and they took us up on it, some got vaccinated after that because it became more widely available. And I know anyone could get vaccinated anywhere. And then the constant change in an outflow of pretrial detainees and people incarcerated in the jails just make it very, very difficult to keep track of who’s vaccinated and who’s not. And that’s the best explanation I can give to you.

We’ve talked about mandating vaccination for all employees at the jails. We’ve tried to figure it out. Do I want to mandate that, is that really fair to the employees there? We certainly encourage all of them. I think it’s pretty obvious that they could be exposed if there’s an outbreak and then those employees who choose not to be vaccinated are really at risk.

And it’s just a big dilemma about what’s the best policy. And especially since the vaccines are all on emergency use authorization at this point, they haven’t gone through the normal vetting processes that vaccines go through at this point in time. It’s a challenge and a dilemma.

When the emergency approval is finished and these are formally approved medications or vaccines, are you inclined to require vaccination for staff?

We are looking at what situations we would require it, and the obvious ones would be jails and prisons. We’ve talked about it for university and school staff. We’ve at least talked about it, conceptually, about hospital employees and hospital staff.

I can tell you it wouldn’t be across the board, all employees. And we’re trying to hone in on what are the conditions that would compel us to make vaccinations mandatory and in what instances it would be suggested or highly encouraged. And we just haven’t really shredded all those options in a way that makes sense.

The Legislature this year gave your administration more money again to hire an executive director and staff for the Correctional Systems Oversight Commission. We want to know if you’ll actually commit to hiring those positions this year. The commission has said they need it to accomplish their goals. So will you do that and when?

Yeah, I remember it coming to my office. So I think I just signed it. And we are looking to staff the commission. As I said at the beginning, we are in definitely a different place regarding the budget at this point in time. And so that’s definitely something we’re going to do.

On the budget, you mentioned earlier that the Council on Revenues is giving us a much better fiscal projection over the next couple of years. But I also wanted to know, what specifically is your administration doing to make sure we don’t end up in a potential budget crisis like we saw earlier this year?

It’s a couple of things. We are relaxing financial constraints, but I’m a pretty fiscally conservative guy. We  worked hard to get our bond rating upgraded. And this pandemic has created issues. State government is still bigger than the revenues that we’re getting. And it still will be a couple of years before we are at the same revenue level that was forecasted pre-pandemic.

We still continue to have a hiring freeze. I’ve told the directors to really evaluate every vacancy and those that are really critical and high priority will be allowed to be filled, but they should be thoughtful in how they will proceed with that.

I negotiated with all the collective bargaining organizations and we got from them zero pay increases this year and zero pay increases next year. So we continue to make sure that we are representing the public when we’re dealing with these public employee unions. And quite frankly, that’s why it’s difficult to see bonuses for one group or another when we are negotiating hard to recognize the fiscal condition of the state and really not over promise employees. So that will continue.

The HART rail train travels along the guideway near the H1/H2 freeway merge near Leeward Community College.
The HART rail train travels on the guideway near the H-1, H-2 freeway merge near Leeward Community College. Ige said that, because many people are “appalled” at the way the project is being managed, he and the Legislature will find it difficult to justify using more state funds for its completion. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

We are definitely looking next year as to what and where we would look to expand government. We know that the university suffered significant budget cuts. So we are looking at restoring some of those as a priority. But I am a very conservative guy when it comes to managing taxpayer dollars. So we want to right-size government and we will be careful.

Were you saying you plan to restore some of those budget cuts to you that were made this session?

In the supplemental budget year. So not so much immediately.

To what degree do you see the defense industry playing a role in Hawaii’s post-COVID economy?

We do know that federal spending, a lot of that is tied to Department of Defense, was the one area of our economy that actually expanded throughout the pandemic. So I think that that was a good omen for us. I’ve had several discussions with the new Secretary of Defense (Lloyd) Austin, as well as the new commander in the Pacific Command about our commitment to supporting the Department of Defense here in the state of Hawaii.

They have expressed to me they recognize the strategic importance that Hawaii plays and they certainly see increased activity here. And I think all of you are aware Pearl Harbor is the largest industrial employer here in the state of Hawaii. They’re building a new dry dock. That would be a significant increase in jobs, quality job opportunities at various levels, from engineers to skilled trades.

Submarine docked at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
A submarine docked at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The governor believes federal spending plans at military facilities in Hawaii bodes well for the state’s economy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

There definitely is a shift that we see in the Department of Defense. China as a threat is accelerating. And I do think that the Department of Defense is recognizing that China is closing the gap. They are developing systems and defenses that can create a problem for the United States. And they know that we need to do better here.

And thank goodness a lot of that deals with making investments in the state of Hawaii and Pearl Harbor. Our clean energy initiative is attractive to them because they’ve committed to be energy self-reliant among their forward stations. And then this just as the United States begins to renegotiate the Compact of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia and other Pacific island nations.

The Department of Defense recognizes that there is a critical security perspective that has been missing from a lot of the planning and that there needs to be a bigger commitment to invest in the Pacific island region because of that, and Hawaii will play a critical role in that. So I’m excited about that opportunity. I think it does bode well generally for Department of Defense activities here and theater activities in general.

The conventional wisdom is that you don’t dive into a political controversy until you have to, but I’m sure you see on the horizon the rail controversy coming to the state Capitol. People who are involved in the project see the painless solution to their problem as being an extension of the two taxes that have been committed to the rail project, just push it out further beyond 2030. Whereas ending the line early or forcing the city to come up with the billions of dollars that they need to complete the line would be extremely painful and beyond controversial. So I’m just interested in your views on that, because at some point it’s coming to you.

Talking with the people in the general community, they continue to be appalled at how that project is managed and they see examples of excess and waste all the time. And I think it would be hard for the Legislature to take action to provide more resources because the general public just thinks that that project has been mismanaged. There are examples — if you just look at this (Colleen Hanabusa) contract. A million-dollar contract basically to lobby the Legislature to get more state resources. The public is just appalled that that’s actually part of the program.

Until there is better fiscal discipline in the project, until people get a sense that they’re being responsible with whatever funds they’re getting, it will be difficult for the state to step up again to provide them additional resources. So I don’t feel comfortable advocating that we extend those taxes.

It’s hard for me to advocate for the state giving more resources to the county when you know this project hasn’t been managed well, and you know the general public doesn’t want it to get more resources, so I mean I think we’ll have to see how that progresses.

Governor, they’re under the gun. Intensely. They can’t unlock federal funding until they’ve found a local source that will make up for the shortfall. So in just a matter of months now, they’re going to have to come up with some kind of a plan that they can pitch. And  everybody seems to be looking at the state. So you said it’d be difficult to support that. Would you oppose it?

Well, no. I mean, it just depends on what the specifics of the proposal is. I wouldn’t flat out say I oppose anything that they suggest. But as I said, I just believe that the public in general just continues to see example after example of the project just not being well managed.

Just switching gears real quick, we haven’t heard much regarding the Thirty Meter Telescope. I was wondering if you’ve been in contact with their people and what are they asking of the state?

I was in contact with the National Science Foundation and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy just to talk about the Thirty Meter Telescope. And clearly everyone was focused on the once-in-a-decade study where the National Science Foundation and all of the institutions that fund scientific research really puts together their decades-long game plan of what are the most important investments in science and discovery for the next decade. The project advocates had presented to the study their reasons about why the Thirty Meter Telescope in association with the very large telescope project really should be funded to ensure that the United States continues to be a leader in astronomical research.

So right now, the project is really waiting for the final conclusions of that study. I know that it was supposed to be out soon and that would drive investments in projects over the next decade. And it has become clear to me that the project does need additional funds in order to proceed. And they will be counting on getting funds from the National Science Foundation in order to complete the project.

So that’s kind of what they are pursuing. They definitely are gearing up for that study and they are hoping that it shows that investment in the Thirty Meter Telescope is a priority of the nation. And if that happens, then they would pursue funding to finish the project from the National Science Foundation. I don’t (know) what that timeline is. I do know that the decadal study was supposed to have been completed earlier this year or is soon to be completed.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that the TMT project had until Sept. 26 to start on-site construction on Mauna Kea as required by a state DLNR permit issued for the project. The University of Hawaii-Hilo and the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory have maintained that various construction-related activities began on the site in June 2019 and DLNR stated that this requirement has been satisfied.
Telescope opponents, however, are challenging that assertion, and the matter may go back to the Board of Land and Natural Resources. 

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