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Gubernatorial candidates spar in televised debate

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Former Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann on Tuesday night tried to pin state Sen. David Ige with responsibility for the state’s troubled public hospitals, but Ige countered that he has done more than the other two gubernatorial candidates to improve the system.

With Ige leading in recent public and private polls, his rivals sought to use a one-hour debate sponsored by KITV and Civil Beat to undermine the Democrat.

Hannemann, an independent, asked Ige why he did not do more as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee to advance bills that would have allowed the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. to engage in public-private partnerships and transition into a nonprofit or public benefit corporation.

The state’s public hospital system routinely requires emergency cash infusions from the Legislature to function, and some public hospital administrators are eager for change and the opportunity to partner with private-sector interests.

Aiona, a Republican, questioned whether Ige could stand up to the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest public-sector labor union, which represents workers at public hospitals. The union, which has taken credit for killing a bill last session that would have allowed the system to transition into a nonprofit, has endorsed Ige.

Ige said lawmakers could not reach agreement on the bill but that the concept of public-private partnerships for public hospitals remains an option because of prior legislation he had worked on.

Asked by Aiona whether he would allow the union to drive public hospitals into bankruptcy, Ige responded: “Absolutely not. I have spent more time working on our public hospitals than either of you.”

Aiona singled out the HGEA as the obstacle. “If the HGEA takes the kind of stance that it takes,” he said. “Obviously, the people of Hawaii are going to suffer.”

The candidates have agreed to more than a dozen debates before the November election, but the forums that have been held so far have mostly failed to illuminate many substantial policy differences.

The KITV debate, moderated by KITV anchor Paula Akana, did have several interesting moments.

Ige challenged Aiona to explain why he and former Gov. Linda Lingle twice allowed the state budget to fall into deficit. The Lingle administration had blamed the relatively small deficits at the time on an accounting error.

“How can the people trust you with taxpayer dollars when you couldn’t balance the state’s checkbook?” Ige asked.

Aiona sought to deflect responsibility, as he has on Lingle-era controversies over teacher furloughs and the Hawaii Superferry, by explaining that Lingle made the final decisions.

But Ige drilled down. He said the Lingle administration’s budget strategy included postponing payments to heath insurers and delaying income tax refunds. “Withholding payment from vendors or suppliers — or the people of Hawaii — are really not valid budget-balancing methods,” he said.

Aiona, meanwhile, suggested either a public-private partnership to improve Aloha Stadium or giving the University of Hawaii the resources to build a new stadium on campus.

Ige questioned where the state would get the money for a new stadium. He said Aloha Stadium is a good facility that can be improved.

“A new stadium can cost anywhere to a $100 (million), $200 (million), $300 million dollars,” Ige said. “And what schools are you going to shut down? What facilities — what university facilities, or court facilities — are we going to forgo in order to construct the stadium?”

Hannemann said the state should “think big” and find an investment partner that would help build a new stadium.

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