The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke with state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz on Wednesday. The Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair began by discussing his approach to hearing some bills this session and which bills might be a priority. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and to remove material we plan to use in other stories.

I told the staff to support all the single referral (bills) and let’s just post them. Let’s just get them out there. It wasn’t necessarily which ones I wanted and which ones (others) did. I just wanted to get the thing moving because the Legislature some years takes a little while (to get going). So I wanted to just get things kind of moving.

What’s the Senate’s thinking of the governor’s $100 refund proposal?

It’s all going to depend on what our financial plan looks like at the end. I think there’s a lot of priorities. People want to prioritize housing, infrastructure, restoring critical needs. It’s all going to come down to making sure that we can help the most people — kind of lift people up. What’s the best use of those dollars to get people in a better situation so that their quality of life is better?

And if the caucus believes that the $100 (refund is the way) to do that, then that’s fine. But I think there are bigger issues that people want to try to address. Things like more ohana zones (for the homeless).

So you’re saying that that money — the $100 proposed by the governor, which would be $110 million — could be better used on other things?

No, I’m not. I’m saying that there’s a lot of priorities. We’ve got to look at what’s going to make the best impact to improve people’s quality of life. I don’t think that the pandemic was fair, to some extent, as to treating people the same across the board. I think there are definitely groups of people who have suffered more and are still suffering (more) than others. So that’s something that we’ve got to look at.

What are you hearing from your constituents? Because it seems something like the $100 handout would be a hard thing to deny in an election year. 

We still hear that we want to make sure our schools are improved, that we want to make sure that the roads are improved. We want to make sure that our parks are clean. You know, there’s still a lot of things that we’ve got to do. Government has grown quite a bit over the last several decades, and we don’t necessarily have a random plan and an operating plan for (that).

Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz speaks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz spoke to the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Wednesday. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

I just look at Lake Wilson, and when you go, there are state parks that could use a lot more help versus when you look at the federal parks system. They’re managed better than our state parks, although I think that’s because of the revenue they’re able to generate because of some of these new parking programs. I think that’s going to help in the long run. But government’s growing.

So I think there is kind of a view that a hundred bucks is nothing. And so why hand out in individual chunks when, as you’re saying, there are these other needs that a $110 million would really go toward?

There’s a lot of things that people want. There’s a lot of different things that the pandemic has provided us an opportunity to reflect (upon), to see what’s going to be really meaningful as we invest these dollars. And they should be given thought, and it should be strategic and not just reactive.

There’ll be another Council on Revenues (economic forecast) coming up in a couple of months. Do you think we really are going to still be dealing with a billion-plus dollars regarding the surplus?

I don’t think too much has changed in the pandemic numbers or the visitor numbers from when they did it a month ago to now. So it seems like that’s probably going to be on track — unless there is another (Covid) variant that’s going to cause us to partly shut down again. It seems like we’re kind of on track to stay with their current projection.

Might there be a little bit of money for everybody? As you know, the governor wants to put more in the rainy day fund. Your caucus has mentioned affordable housing and homelessness. Collective bargaining is up again as well for the public sector unions.

Hopefully there’s enough to be able to make a meaningful impact in many areas. Like infrastructure. We talked about $600 million for (the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands). The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has contacted us about how can we start to resolve some of the issues that they’ve been pushing for.

How do you plan to resolve the OHA issue? They are asking you for half a billion dollars, and it seems like they’re not going to get all of that. But could they get some of that?

They could. And they may not. We’re still beginning to flesh out a lot of these ideas, to see what has consensus and what doesn’t. Housing seems to be where a lot of people feel we’ve got to address it. Even when you talk about mortgage assistance or down payment assistance. As the Senate president pointed out, we need money in infrastructure because you want to increase the inventory. It may have to be a lot of these different things at the same time. You still got to have inventory.

So is this kind of a year where housing’s time has come finally? 

I really believe that it is a housing issue. But in order for us to increase inventory, it’s really an infrastructure issue. I mean, if you can’t flush a toilet, you can’t build a house.

And then there’s other issues. We have an aging population right now. I see so many different studies that show if you can build more attractive senior housing that seniors will maybe vacate their home — and that’s a more inexpensive home than a new home for a first-time buyer. There’s all these different ways that we can approach it.

You mentioned tax increases too, and I know it’s still early, but I think I saw some bills to increase taxes on higher earners. There’s some looking at excusing people from the general excise tax if they’re at a certain income level and so forth. There is always a look at raising automobile fees and registration. Is it too soon to comment on whether there’s going to be any tax increases?

I don’t know if there’s an appetite for that. People want to ensure fairness, so maybe those will probably go through. But just to generate revenue, especially when I think we should be generating revenue through some other things that we’ve been pushing — the parking fees, the green fee. There’s other things that I think as we look at trying to balance tourism and create a new effort and focus on the visitor that we want. And how are we going to manage that? That method is how we should approach raising revenue.

UH Manoa Football field.
Clarence T.C. Ching Field was altered to allow for UH football games, but attendance remains dismal. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Aloha Stadium. Do we need a new stadium?

Well, I don’t think it’s a stadium that’s isolated. The plan is supposed to be an entertainment district and it falls in line with transit-oriented development. Part of the reason why I supported rail from when I was on the Honolulu City Council was if you want to keep the country country, you’ve got to make the city city. And part of that is not necessarily rail by itself, but really the TOD.

The proposals are out there for this multi-use entertainment district and affordable housing and the stadium, but they can’t fill the stadium. The UH football team can barely get a couple of thousand people into Ching Field right now. I’m being a cynic here, but do we need a football team?

Some of us would like to see design, build, operate, maintain (DBOM). And that way the private sector takes that on and it’s their responsibility to make sure that there’s going to be the concerts and all the activities to generate the funding to operate the stadium. But they’re going to be leveraging the development along with the operations and maintenance of the stadium to make sure it all cancels out.

I think you’ve expressed concerns about the Safe Travels program in the past. Have you been reassured about the way the money is being spent? Are you going to push for action on that during the legislative session?

It’s not just the Safe Travels program. I think it’s the infrastructure there too, because what I understand is the department is not willing to continue to fund the cameras even at the airport that determine temperature. So we have to have a discussion with the administration. Some of us believe, no, I think we should keep all of this still in place. The administration doesn’t. If the House and the Senate can agree, we’re probably going to be able to keep it operating.

Lifeguard surf board reads 'rescue' with the Waikiki skyline in the background during a recent surge in Covid-19 cases statewide. January 20, 2022.
Tourism is rebounding as Covid eases, but the state is still dependent on the industry. Dela Cruz seeks to educate the workforce to build infrastructure to help the state diversify economically. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

You changed the way the Hawaii Tourism Authority was funded. The counties now can levy the surcharge for the hotel tax. At the same time, HTA has embarked on this new strategic plan with destination management. Are you confident this is going to work?

Not at the moment, because we’ve asked them why doesn’t your budget reflect that you’re going to be putting money into those (Destination Management Action Plans)? And that’s the other thing that I thought was missing was a memorandum of agreement between the county and some nonprofit that they’re engaging. We just can’t do a binder of all the plans and then they think they’re going to just happen on their own. How much is it going to cost us? And which agencies are involved? And what’s the MOA so that there’s commitment? So I’m hoping that they move to that. I still think we need some statutory changes in HTA to reflect this new model of the DMAP being the new marketing.

Will that happen this session or is it too soon?

I’m hoping that we can do a little bit of that. But the DMAP, without money and without agreements of other agencies, I don’t know. I don’t feel like it’s real, right?

What’s going to happen with the more middle class kinds of issues? What do you think are the main things that should be done? I know you talked about housing a little bit, but is there anything at all that you think the Legislature can and might actually really do to help with the working class, the middle class people that are being really priced out?

So one of the things that we’re working on is how do we deal with our issues at hand? How does it all kind of combine? So I’m trying to map that out in my head, but one of the things that we’ve been pushing for is certificate programs that will allow people (to have) a job without having to get a bachelor’s degree.

One of the biggest initiatives that we have is IT. We’ve been working with community colleges to just do IT certificate programs and then what we’re going to do is we’re going to fund 40 positions so that we can create internships, so that when people get the certificate, the state hires them as an intern and then they get the work experience to go get a real job in that field.

We want to make sure our schools are improved. We want to make sure that the roads are improved. We want to make sure that our parks are clean.

Working with community colleges, it’ll probably be about, I hope, six or seven different pipelines where it’s database management, cloud networking, cyber, geospatial. And we’ve been working with industry partners (in the state). We went to Maui and we went to Kauai. (Companies) showed us how much they can pay, but they don’t have the skilled workforce. What they told us is that they have to bring in guys from the mainland, or bring guys in from Oahu, but what they really want to do is hire Kauai. And same thing for Maui, they want to hire Maui, but we got to create these pipelines.

Just let me just take a different subject — we keep talking about (how) we need more farmers, we need more farmers. But all we have is the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. But why if we need more farmers, shouldn’t we be doing something to make sure that we can provide programing to all people, because most high school graduates may not go to four year colleges? I mean, the stats are there, they’re not going to go.

So if we create more certificate programs that will lead to a higher paying job, they can have access to those programs, especially with early college. So we’re working with community colleges on IT certificate programs. We’re trying to develop other programs that can be value added, and agriculture. What they’re looking at is a hub and spoke model. So if Leeward Community College is going to become the value added hub, any other value added to the program throughout the state would be the spoke of the Leeward program, similar to the Kapiolani Community College nursing (program).

But when you look at all the jobs that can pay, why aren’t we putting in a lot more programing so that we can create pipelines to these jobs and that will help people get better paying jobs?

But that’s just one part of the puzzle because you’ve still got to provide affordable housing. You’ve still got to provide the pre-K. It’s a matrix of things that have to occur so that you can move people up. It’s not like if you just do this one thing, all our problems are solved.

Everyone seems focused on the minimum wage increase. But we’ve been hearing from other folks in the community that really what you have to do is make it affordable to live here and then increase the minimum wage or do both. But you can’t just increase the minimum wage and say that’s good enough.

Yeah, exactly. That’s where it goes back to you need the infrastructure for housing. You’ve got to do those programs. You still need the pre-K programs. You still have to create these new pipelines or pathways because people have to have access to higher paying jobs.

So are you guys going to do all that this year?

Well, we already started. I mean, we already started on some of these programs.

Some of the things that we’ve been working on are like alternative learning centers. People who have to go to alternative learning centers, they get suspended so they’re not going to back to Lelehua or Mililani (schools). They go to the alternative learning center so they can continue their education and hopefully get motivated.

So now we’re going to have about nine alternative learning centers throughout the state. We funded $6 million last year for six. We did three before. And that’s all the things like trying to stop the pipeline to prison and trying to stop the pipeline to prostitution or over dependence on social services. And we’ve got to figure out all these different things. What we’re finding, though, is even when you start to solve one problem, then you start to recognize all these other ones.

I just think in general we have to talk about all these other meat and potato issues out there, and that’s something the media should step up because we feel like we do that here.

You’re a former City Council chair, former council member. It’s possible that the council and HART may be coming to you requesting more money to bail out rail.

It doesn’t sound like it.

They’re not going to come and ask for more of GET and TAT for the rail?

We just gave them the ability to raise their own revenue. They can generate their own.

If they did come, I’m guessing you’re not going to be receptive.

Probably not. Not after we just provided them taxing authority.

That’s the counties that have the taxing authority. And so you’re saying it’d be up to (the City and County of Honolulu) on rail?

Yeah, because it’s like, give a man a fish or teach him how to fish. So here you go.

How much is seeing your counterpart in the House, Sylvia Luke, leave (to run for lieutenant governor) going to change the way the Legislature operates?

Well, she has a lot of integrity. She’s very intelligent. She has a lot of depth. She and I talk a lot about these issues — how do we balance it all? How do you make sure that we can in some areas make incremental steps, in some areas take bigger steps. She has a lot of institutional knowledge. So I think whoever takes her place, it’s going to be a while for them to get to that level.

Chair John Mizuno and right, Sen Josh Green speak to Rep Sylvia Luke during recess of a conference committee in the Capitol room 325 1030a meeting.
Dela Cruz says the departure of House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke leaves a big role to fill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

You may have seen we have a Hawaii Grown series that’s been pretty thorough and ongoing. Do you see more support coming out of the Legislature to grow the agriculture industry here?

In general, I hear a lot of support. Seeing support is a little different. But when we go to different islands, there are a lot of things that people need, but you have to look at the whole chain of things. It’s not that simple anymore, where one thing is going to make a difference. Let’s give one example. On Maui we went to a place where a lady makes jams, so it’s value added. But she doesn’t have good warehouse space. She doesn’t have the processing equipment so that she can scale up, and she needs to make sure that there are farmers out there that she can buy from.

If we create more certificate programs that will lead to a higher paying job, they have to have access to those programs, especially with early college.

There is very little coordination in my mind of making sure that you can deal with situations at every step so that you can scale up. They need access to land. They need storage and cold storage facilities. They need manufacturing equipment, but they also need training. That’s where I go back to value added — hopefully that they can create more of that. I think everyone can probably agree that Big Island Candies is good for Hawaii. So imagine if we had 100 companies like that?

What’s next for you? You’ve been talked about as a potential candidate for higher office. What are your plans?

To continue to do a good job. Especially with a lot of transition, I think it’s important that we have stability. I mean, we’ve built up a lot of institutional knowledge just because we’ve been in this job for five years.


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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

My goodness that guy can bob and weave.There's hardly a straight answer anywhere.

taueva · 7 months ago

We should be concerned if legislators have the view that $100 is nothing. With the price of everything increasing, we pay more in taxes on our purchases. Anyone who doesn’t want some of it back can donate it back to the state.

Baddog · 7 months ago

Seems to me the legislature has some priorites and should focus on legislation dealing with them. Don't let the lobbyists or special interest groups obscucre their efforts. From what I gather raising the minimum wage and developing more afforadble housing is the priority. There is other legislation that will contribute to these efforts.

Richard_Bidleman · 7 months ago

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