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Tsutsui: Economy must diversify


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui left his Maui seat in the state Legislature to be Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s right-hand man three months ago.

Tsutsui, 41, was in fact the state Senate President, the youngest ever in Hawaii, when the governor tabbed the Maui lawmaker to replace Brian Shatz, who was named to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye in December.

On Thursday, Tsutsui told the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce that his Maui background gives him broad insight to the concerns of Neighbor Island residents. As lieutenant governor, “My goal is that the Neighbor Islands play a larger role in decisions happening at the state capitol,” he said. “As a resident of a Neighbor Island, I know our needs are different than Oahu’s.”

Tsutsui, who has a bachelor of arts degree in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, provided “Insight on Hawaii’s Economic Development” at the noon luncheon meeting in Hilo. “As a former business owner, I know the challenges that businesses face,” he said. “We need to grow our economy.”

There are positive signs. Economic indicators such as visitor arrivals and expenditures are improving, he noted, and the council on Revenues predicts growth in Hawaii through 2015.” Construction is rebounding after five years of decline,” he said. “Hopefully we’re turning the corner, we’re on the right path.

“But we need more creative options,” he said. “We can’t continue to rely on tourism and military. I think it’s ever more important to diversify.”

On cue, the Powerpoint slide turned to Waimea Nui Agriculture Park, designed to give new farmers experience in agriculture with Hawaiian values, creating 40 jobs and as many as 300 new farmers as a matter of “food security and economic development.” Tsutsui called it the “centerpiece of a comprehensive ag project to be replicated throughout the state.”

Tsutsui mentioned that the governor’s $41 million appropriation for the UH-Hilo School of Pharmacy, which is still under review in the Legislature. Critics ask, “Why Hilo?” he said. “I say, why not? It makes absolute sense.” He said the administration will continue to work with the Legislature to get those funds appropriated.

Hilo Medical Center CEO Dr. Howard Ainsley implored Tsutsui to help fund HMC’s physician residency program that would train and retain primary health care providers that are in short supply on Hawaii Island. “It’s the most important issue we face,” Ainsley said, and he stressed the importance of getting the funding this year.

Tsutsui is also look for opportunities outside the state. “In February, I led a trade mission to the Philippines, looking for better ways to sell our products out of state,” and he called for help “if there are things we can do to promote local products.”

On the construction front, Tsutsui also touted $8.1 million for the Saddle Road extension to Queen Kaahumanu Highway, and improvements projects at both the Hilo and Kona airports.

Tsutsui said the governor’s recently launched Hawaii Intermediate School Challenge will provide academic enrichment programs for middle school students throughout the state. The program would “fill the gap of youth activities for youths in grades 6-8,” he said. He sees a pilot program under way in January and is looking to provide scholarships and grants “so no kid is turned away.”

“It’s going to take partnerships — state and county, public and private, Neighbor Island and Oahu,” he said, to make these programs work.

Judith Fox-Goldstein, who emceed the program, suggested a change in the way Hawaii Island is marketed for tourism. “This is the island for science, agriculture and sustainable energy,” she said, and should be marketed that way.

KTA Superstores president and CEO Barry Taniguchi noted how “great advertising can make a bad product worse” and applied it to Banyan Drive, where the rundown condition of state-managed Banyan Drive properties is driving away visitors the state is trying to attract. The state “has to solve that problem,” Taniguchi said. “Fix the infrastructure now. That would be one of the biggest things you could do. Fix Banyan Drive.”

Taniguchi also called on the state to lengthen the school day by one hour. “A lot could be accomplished,” he said. “Let’s get the infrastructure in to do it. Pay teachers to stay.”

Tsutsui said the governor is committed to early learning and proposed to provide educational opportunities to all pre-kindergarten students. “The big concern is that it’s a cost item, in this case a hefty one.”

Like many cost items, he said, their funding will be contingent on the results of collective bargaining with state employee unions. “The surplus will be absorbed by contracts. Teachers, nurses, will take a lot out of funds out of what’s left.” He lamented the failure of the governor’s proposed sugar tax. “Everything comes down to dollars and cents,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it all comes down to what we can afford.”

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