More funding for agricultural initiatives and government support to help new industries top the list of economic proposals from the leading Republican candidates for governor.

Hawaii has been dependent on tourism since the fall of large-scale ag operations, particularly sugar, beginning in the late 1990s. Economic diversification has been a talking point in nearly every election since then.

But the coronavirus pandemic’s brief shuttering of the tourism industry in 2020 brought new focus on the need to support the local economy through industries other than tourism.

Finding ways to help farmers grow more food locally is a top concern for GOP candidates for governor. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

Civil Beat asked the top Republican gubernatorial candidates running in the party’s Aug. 13 primary how they would diversify Hawaii’s economy. Here are some of their proposals:

Heidi Tsuneyoshi wants the government to kick in more state funds to bring back the dairy industry and increase access to slaughterhouses so that Hawaii can process more of its locally grown meat.

Gary Cordery would sell government lands to farmers and divert tax dollars generated by tourism to support ag industries.

Meanwhile, Duke Aiona wants to attract investments in aerospace by finally opening a spaceport in Hawaii, an idea that’s been around for decades but has never come to fruition.

BJ Penn’s campaign declined an interview for this story.

More Support For Ag

Farmers have called for more support from the government, and want the next governor to have a comprehensive plan for growing agriculture in the state. Plans from the leading Democrats and Republicans may not be all encompassing, but they do offer some ideas for how to move the needle on growing more food locally.

Tsuneyoshi wants the state to help grow the meat processing industry and bring back dairy to the islands. Both sectors have faced similar challenges in regards to processing facilities.

In the dairy industry, which is virtually nonexistent in Hawaii anymore, small-scale farms have been hindered by access to pasteurizing facilities, with only one under the control of Meadow Gold in the state. Much of Hawaii’s meat processing capacity hinges on promises from an Idaho billionaire who’s helping to beef up processing capabilities in Hawaii.

Locally produced milk is virtually nonexistent in Hawaii. Tsuneyoshi hopes to bring the industry back. Blaze Lovell/CivilBeat/2018

Tsuneyoshi said the state could help by setting aside land for new processing plants for milk and meat. Government could also help to pay for the cost of the infrastructure to install those plants, she said.

The idea would be to set up those facilities to attract farming cooperatives that could help ease cost burdens on smaller farms.

Tsuneyoshi said she also would allocate more money in the state budget to the state Department of Agriculture, but she didn’t have a precise figure yet. The DOA currently gets less than 1% of the state’s overall operating budget.

She also said the Agribusiness Development Corp. needs to do a much better job of putting farmers on state-owned ag lands.

The agency has been criticized by the state auditor and University of Hawaii researchers for not putting former plantation lands to use. The agency was also the subject of an investigation by the House last year. Efforts to reform the ADC fell short this year.

To pick up the pace, Tsuneyoshi proposed creating a working group of farmers and others to improve communication with the ADC.

Cordery wants to see farmers on state lands able to own those lands. Instead of agricultural leases, Cordery said the state should sell its lands fee simple to farmers.

As it stands now, farmers could lose their land leases and probably their operations once a lease expires. Many state lessees have said in the past that it’s difficult to attract investments if the life of their businesses on a certain piece of land is finite.

“We need to make it possible for someone to envision long-term investments (in their land). Turn it into a legacy property, where we have families that have been there for generations,” Cordery said.

Cordery wants to open state lands for sale to farmers. Screenshot

The sale of public lands is a touchy subject in Hawaii. Efforts to extend land leases under the auspices of the Department of Land and Natural Resources faced opposition in the Legislature over concerns that 100-year leases could leave leaseholders feeling entitled to land that is not actually theirs.

Cordery also supports more funding for agricultural programs. He proposes redirecting tourism tax dollars to help pay for infrastructure projects to support agriculture. The state is expected to generate more than $500 million from the Transient Accommodations Tax in 2023, most of which ends up in the state’s general fund.

Any efforts to redirect those monies is sure to generate debate in the Legislature and in state government.

Cordery also supports the state’s farm to school program that requires the Department of Education to purchase more local ingredients. He wants to expand that to require the public school system to buy even more locally produced ingredients.

Like Tsuneyoshi, Cordery also wants to see the state help revive and expand the dairy and meat industries here.

That candidates for governor in both of the leading parties are thinking about agriculture is a good sign, said Sumner La Croix, a research fellow at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

But La Croix is skeptical of prospects that Hawaii will ever be able to grow most of its food in a way that could be affordable for residents. One major hurdle is competition from the mainland, which offers produce at lower prices than locally grown products.

Another hurdle is government regulation and land-use policies. La Croix points to a North Shore egg farm, which he said had some trouble installing solar panels because of land restrictions.

Even if Hawaii were to grow the agricultural sector to the magnitude that leaders like Gov. David Ige have called for, the impact may barely make a blip on the state’s economic output. Agriculture and related industries account for less than half of 1% of the state’s gross domestic product.

But that doesn’t mean the state should abandon efforts to grow more of its own food.

La Croix said efforts to boost funding for farmers and the state Department of Agriculture, refocusing the department’s efforts on helping farmers instead of seeing itself as an enforcement agency and providing resources for ag research and development could all go a long way in helping the state grow more of its own food.

Investing In Space

Aiona wants to see the state invest in spaceports on either Kauai or the Big Island.

Commercial spaceports – from which private entities can launch things like satellites, or maybe in the future, commercial passenger flights – are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA currently licenses 14 spaceports across the country. The FAA does not charge fees for licensing, but there is a lengthy process to obtain such a license that includes environmental studies and other due diligence reports.

Aiona envisions the state entering a partnership with a private entity to operate the spaceport. The state would put up the funds to acquire an FAA license and provide some financial support for the infrastructure to open the spaceport as well as possibly land for the port.

Aiona’s economic plan includes development of a spaceport for Hawaii. Courtesy of Alaska Aerospace

“I don’t see us putting a whole lot of money in it, we’re already a natural port,” he said.

But not all licensing processes go smoothly. One county in Georgia has so far spent more than $10 million trying to open its own spaceport.

Under Aiona’s plan, a private developer would share some of the costs for building the spaceport and would then operate it on the state’s behalf. The state would get a cut of the revenues generated by the new spaceport. A similar public-private partnership is envisioned for the new Aloha Stadium in Halawa.

With billionaires putting money into developing space tourism, Aiona is looking toward a future in which rich tourists from Asia or North America may decide that taking a rocket to Hawaii is more elegant than flying in on an Airbus.

Aiona insists the idea “is real. It’s not pie in the sky.”

Ideas for opening a spaceport on the Big Island, particularly in Puna, have been kicked around for decades. A recent proposal to build a satellite launch facility on W.H. Shipman land faced community opposition and then stalled in late 2019 after the landowner pulled out of an agreement with an Alaska-based space company.

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