By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said Thursday during a tour of Hilo that he and Sen. Mazie Hirono are working well together to fill the void left after the death of longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye.
But, some belt-tightening is likely to be on the menu going forward, he warned.
Schatz took over Inouye’s Senate seat in December after being appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie and recently announced he would be running to hold onto the powerful position in the 2014 election. Last week, he launched a tour of the Neighbor Islands to meet with and hear from his constituents, and on Thursday he took time out from his trip to speak with the Tribune-Herald in the lobby of the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel.
On the issue of preserving important Big Island projects that were beneficiaries of Inouye’s standing as the most senior member of the Senate before his passing, Schatz said that he would make funneling federal funds to Hawaii a priority.
As an example, Schatz said he has continued to receive updates on the progress of the Saddle Road alignment project, and said he would work to secure further funds to keep it on track.
Currently, workers are continuing a $33 million project to bring Saddle Road closer to Kona by seven miles. It will be the last major leg of the road improvement project, unless the federal government comes up with more funding to stretch the highway from Mamalahoa Highway to Queen Kaahumanu Highway.
“That project is moving along, I’ve been following it, and I have a good relationship with (U.S. Secretary of Transportation) Ray LaHood,” Schatz said. “And we are going to keep working on this.”
The highway and other projects funded through Inouye’s efforts will remain priorities, he emphasized.
However, despite what he called solid support from fellow legislators — including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., whom he said has acted as “a real friend” and taken Schatz under his wing — Hawaii is likely to see fewer federal dollars coming its way.
“It’s a new budget environment, with the sequestration cuts … and there’s going to be trimming all around,” he said. “Keep in mind that Mazie and I are starting at the beginning here. But, we have been embraced by our colleagues in the Senate, and we will be working together.”
Schatz’s trip to the Big Island on Thursday was limited to Hilo, where he started the day by meeting with the administrator and staff at the Hilo Vet Center on Lanihuli Street.
“They are experiencing capacity issues,” he said. “They need more counselors and case managers. They’re also having problems with transportation and access to care.”
He added that workers at the Hilo office told him that, while the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers mental health assistance and counseling to veterans who are experiencing trouble, they are often unwilling to take advantage of such services for fear of the stigma that might might arise and be associated with their military careers.
“They’re hesitant to get care because they’re afraid it will go in their file. I think we all agree that it’s in everyone’s interest to help these people,” Schatz said. “We’re working with the Department of Defense to see if we can help people get confidential care.”
His next stop was a visit with the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian Medium Education System to discuss Native Hawaiian issues and the college’s attempts to preserve the Hawaiian language.
“We talked about the Hawaiian language immersion program, and how difficult it is to fit this into the No Child Left Behind standards. They’re doing it, and they’re succeeding,” he said. “And I’m advocating for what they’re doing.”
After stopping for a 15-minute interview with the Tribune-Herald, Schatz — who is a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee — was scheduled to meet with workers at the Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge to discuss preserving Hawaii’s natural resources. He was also to meet with representatives from the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.