It was a crowded house at Tuesday’s forum for House and Senate hopefuls at Kealakehe High School in Kailua-Kona — crowded with candidates, that is.
About 80 people listened to the contenders make their cases as the electorate prepares to thin the field next month.
In House District 6, Democratic incumbent Nicole Lowen will face challenger Kalie Akaka in the Aug. 9 primary. Akaka ran unsuccessfully for the same seat in 2012, losing the primary to Lowen by 45 votes. The winner will face one of two Republicans, Roy Ebert or Kelly Valenzuela, in the general election. All of the candidates are from Kailua-Kona. The district includes Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa and Honokohau.
Lowen has called for better resources for schools and investment in agriculture, access to higher education, renewable energy and support for farmers. Her priorities include the second and third phases of the Palamanui site, funding for the Kona judiciary complex and a new international arrivals facility at the Kona Airport. Lowen said she would oppose any increase in the GE tax, and pointed to $200 million in recent appropriations for Big Island projects during her tenure.
Lowen also said she has requested that the Department of Land and Natural Resources create rules to oversee crowded manta ray night dive sites.
Akaka stressed a balance of responsible and environmentally compatible growth, and education opportunities.
“I am Kona born, raised and educated,” said Akaka, granddaughter of the former U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka.
“With a good college in our backyard, more students have the ability to reach their potential,” said Akaka, who also called for lowering electricity costs and supporting mom-and-pop businesses like the Kona coffee farmers, many of whom are multi-generational.
“We used to be the breadbasket of the world before tourism,” she said.
Ebert is also returning to the field after a 2012 primary win over Mike Breslin but a loss to Lowen in the general election. Ebert runs Total Estate Care and has more than 30 years experience as a small business owner. He hopes to address “runaway state government,” and the state’s “financial mess” if he’s elected.
The red tape involved in conducting business is so onerous that entrepreneurs end up throwing their hands in the air, he said.
“Businesses are over-regulated, over-taxed,” he said. “So many businesses are in a hole so deep they may never get out…We need to work on the energy and tax situation if we’re going to encourage businesses to grow.”
Valenzuela, executive assistant at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, has also worked with at-risk youth and victims of domestic violence. Government transparency, better support for education and reducing the high cost of living are key issues for Valenzuela, who told forum-goers that she was greatly concerned about the National Park Service petition to designate the Keauhou aquifer as a state water management area. Other candidates echoed the concern, calling it an over-reach by the federal government.
“If they are allowed to come in here and reach over, if it gets passed in November, there will be no Palamanui, no expansion of the highway,” Valenzuela said. “It will all stop.”
The red tape involved in conducting business needs to be cut through, Valenzuela said, including over-long permitting and licensing.
“We need tax incentives. We need to make the processes shorter,” she said.
State Senate District 4 has Lorraine Inouye of Hilo facing incumbent Malama Solomon of Waimea in the primary. The winner will vie for North Hawaii’s new seat with Libertarian Alain Schiller of Waikoloa.
Solomon, the incumbent who has spent 18 years in state Senate, said her priority is to fast-track the Palamanui facility and numerous other capital improvement projects, along with improving parks and supporting agriculture.
To bolster business, Solomon said she supports tax reform, streamlining of permitting and lowering electricity costs.
“Any mandated insurance should be affordable,” she said.
Inouye, with three decades in politics including County Council, Hawaii County Mayor and the Legislature, said that health care is a top priority. Rural hospitals need doctors and funding, she said.
“Let’s use one hospital as a model for privatizing and go from there,” Inouye said.
Education is also a priority, Inouye said.
“It bothers me to see school restrooms for boys and girls lacking supplies in many cases,” she said.
To help promote business, Inouye called for a task force to examine the general excise tax, compare the state’s tax structure to other states and come up with reforms.
Schiller, who attended but did not participate in the forum, is running on a platform of small government and points to the failure of a two-party system in protecting the public interest from corporate interests.
In the Senate District 3 race, State Sen. Josh Green of Kailua-Kona has no opponents in the primary and will face Naalehu Libertarian Michael Last in the general election.
Green, with a decade in the Legislature, represents Kona and Ka’u and said he will continue to hold access to quality health care as his top priority if he’s re-elected. Stabilizing the hospital safety net and focusing on finalizing appropriations for the Palamanui site are also key, he said.
Green said he would seek a balance of good, steady jobs and education opportunities.
“I believe in supporting the legacy of agriculture in Kona,” Green said.
Asked about ways to bolster business, Green said he has sponsored legislation to eliminate the general excise tax on health care and food. A robust supply of energy from solar and geothermal would help cut the hidden costs of business, he said.
Last, who owns a small engineering consulting business, took a “get the government off our backs” approach.
“Is the state government too invasive? You decide,” he said. “Look at some of the things that are presently illegal — gambling and marijuana — I don’t gamble and smoke but I have no right to dictate how another adult lives their life.”
Last blamed the Legislature, overbearing unions and a Democrat-controlled status quo for being party to an environment hostile to business in the state.
“We need to talk to the business community and figure out what is the impediment to moving ahead,” he said.