Neil Abercrombie came to Kona Wednesday to push one message: Hawaii needs public-private partnerships.
The governor, speaking at a Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club luncheon, did not mention the Public Land Development Corp. specifically, but he did weave the basic goal of the PLDC plan throughout his speech.
“What we really need to be able to do there (Honokohau Harbor) is get past this knee-jerk resistance to public-private partnerships,” Abercrombie said, in response to a question about the incomplete improvements at the harbor. “Can we get past this accusatory, denunciatory atmosphere about public-private partnerships. It’s reached a stage almost of hysteria.”
The delayed repairs at Honokohau Harbor are one of the biggest disappointments in his own first two years in office. He blamed “a variety of reasons” for the slow progress, but did not provide details.
It all comes back to those public-private partnerships again, he said.
“If we do that, you’ll see transformation very quickly,” he added.
Rick Gaffney, who has been involved in pushing the state for repairs to the harbor, said after the luncheon he knew of no opposition to the planned improvements. He said the only public-private partnership proposed for the harbor of which he was aware was a last-minute move by the Legislature to assign harbor management to the PLDC.
Abercrombie touted a new plan, this one before the Legislature this session, that would allow the state to develop lands set aside for public schools. That would create a new and needed revenue stream, Abercrombie said. Those funds are especially important for the Department of Education, where the average age of a school building is 35 and many schools don’t have up-to-date science labs or even the electrical capacity to support increased computers and other electronic devices.
The state cannot afford the upgrades it needs in other areas with the current tax base, Abercrombie added.
Asked about the Queen Kaahumanu Highway widening project, Abercrombie talked about the need for a national governors council to address delays in federal responses to local projects. And, as he did last year, he laid blame for the delay on the Section 106 consultation with Native Hawaiians for the lack of progress.
“Those who opposed the project for whatever reason are really seeking to delay it,” Abercrombie said. “If you delay it, you win.”
Delays can lead to the loss of funding or otherwise prevent a project from ever happening, he added. That’s why he would like to see a governors council be able to step in and intervene on states’ behalf.
Abercrombie cited unemployment figures to show how much improvement the state’s economy has made. The statewide unemployment rate is down to 5.2 percent, he said. The last time the rate was that low was October 2008. The statewide unemployment rate in December 2011 was 6.6 percent, he added. On Hawaii Island, the unemployment rate dropped from 8.9 percent in December 2011 to the current 6.9 percent.
Even better, Abercrombie said, is the state’s overall financial health. When he took office, the state had a quarter of a billion dollar deficit. Today, he said, the state has a surplus of more than $325 million. He made no reference to increasing revenues from the rebounding visitor industry.
The governor was long on policy during the talk, but was spare with promises. He said he held back on bonds to improve the state’s financial standing with ratings firms the past several years, noting refinancing $500 million of debt during a time of historic low rates has saved the state millions of dollars. He did add he would spend $40 million a month, or $800 million to $1 billion over the next year in project funding.
Abercrombie claimed bringing the Thirty Meter Telescope to Hawaii Island would add $1 billion to the economy, and went on to praise the state’s university system. He again questioned opposition that has slowed the project’s approval, noting a sole approval remains.
“We are going to have a Big Island college system,” Abercrombie said, referring to the expanding University of Hawaii system.
That system will be “second to none … and one of the most forward-looking,” Abercrombie said.