Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie said at a debate last night that if elected governor he would seek more federal dollars to help with the state budget and reduce the need for state public worker furloughs, while Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona questioned the wisdom of relying on federal money that might not be available.
Furloughs for state workers, approved after negotiations with public-sector labor unions to help with the state’s budget deficit, are set to expire at the end of June. State lawmakers and the Lingle administration agreed to tap the state’s hurricane relief fund this year to end furloughs for teachers early after public opposition.
Abercrombie, a Democrat, said public workers are among the state’s best resources. He said the Lingle administration has not made enough use of federal money during the budget struggle.
"Public employees are the most under-resourced resource that we have," he said. "Public employees are ready to step forward and make the suggestions that we need to have in order to see that we can get the mission done with the people we have and the dollars we have to expend."
Aiona, a Republican, said Abercrombie has not specified how he would find the money to end furloughs other than references to obtaining more federal dollars.
"Are you telling me that for 20 years you’ve been in Congress, and you haven’t revealed to us where all the federal money is, Mr. Abercrombie?" he said.
The 90-minute debate,
televised live on OC16, was sponsored by the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and took place at the Hawai’i Convention Center. The candidates took questions from a three-member panel and had the opportunity to ask each other questions. Howard Dashefsky was the moderator.
Many questions involved native Hawaiian issues, but the candidates also took queries on the economy, higher education, affordable housing and civil unions.
Abercrombie and Aiona both support a native Hawaiian federal recognition bill pending before Congress for the past decade. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, would create a process for Hawaiians to form their own government, similar to American Indians and Alaska natives.
Abercrombie said U.S. Senate Republicans have been responsible for stalling the bill, which had its best chance of passage over the past two years under Hawaii-born President Barack Obama and a Democratic majority in Congress. He said there is still a chance to move the bill in a lame-duck session after the November elections and before the political makeup of Congress changes in January.
Aiona said he would build relationships with a new Congress to try to advance the bill.
Both candidates also said they would work toward a settlement between Hawaiians and the state over revenue from ceded lands, which is land formerly owned by the Hawaiian monarchy. OHA and the Lingle administration have backed a land-and-cash settlement worth $200 million that has been rejected by the state Legislature.
Aiona took issue with Abercrombie’s attempts to link him to some unpopular decisions under Gov. Linda Lingle over the past eight years, such as teacher furloughs and cuts to the state Historic Preservation Division. "First of all, it’s not my administration," Aiona said. "You had a chance to run against Gov. Lingle four years ago and you should have done that. It’s her administration."
Aiona said he considered a civil unions bill approved by the Legislature and vetoed by Lingle this year as equivalent to same-sex marriage.
Abercrombie said civil unions were not the same as marriage. He put civil unions into a broader civil rights context and cited unequal treatment for Hawaiians and for Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II.