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“It looks like that we’ve a controversy on our hands,” said Hawaii talk show host Mike Buck, speaking Tuesday morning (Oct. 20, 2020) to his devoted KHNR AM 690 or FM 94.3 radio audience.

In fact, said the popular veteran broadcaster, “I know we have a controversy on our hands. We’ve been talking about this for several days already. As I predicted yesterday, this is running through the business community like wildfire. Everybody’s got an opinion and they all seem to not like this thing called Bill 80.”

“It’s talking about … the right of recall,” he continued. “I know it sounds good to everybody, but I don’t know if it really is. … This is a City Council bill that would require hotels to rehire laid off workers according to a strict formula, as the state’s tourism industry recovers. This is like you’re being told … how to run your business.

Buck went on to say he had read testimony about the bill submitted to the Honolulu City Council on Monday by Joe Kent, executive vice resident of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. He subsequently arranged for Keli’i Akina, institute president, to talk with him about the bill on his show.

“[This bill] seems like great idea,” he said to Akina, “but wait a minute, they want to do what?”

Hear Akina’s reaction and the rest of the lively interview below. See also the full transcript of the interview below.

10-20-20

Keli‘i Akina on “The Mike Buck Show,” AM 690/FM 94.3 KHNR

Mike Buck: It looks like that we’ve a controversy on our hands; I know we have a controversy on our hands. We’ve been talking about this for several days already. As I expected and as I predicted yesterday, this is running through the business community like wildfire. Everybody’s got an opinion, and they all seem to not like this thing called Bill 80. 

You’re going to get a lesson in civics today. This is not before the Legislature, this is before the City Council and before the administration, and it only affects the island of Oahu — you think. … 

Yesterday, as you know, we had Mufi Hannemann from the HLTA (Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association) on talking about his opposition, their opposition. Now, it seems like every other group that I’ve talked to, including what we’ve got coming up here in a minute, it feels the same way. 

I read a testimony from Grassroot Institute’s Vice President Joe Kent, and it’s talking about this Bill 80 relating to the right of recall. I know it sounds good to everybody, but I don’t know if it really is, so we reached out to find out more about that. This is a City Council bill that would require hotels to rehire laid off workers according to a strict formula. As the state’s tourism industry recovers, and… you’re a business owner, … you’re being told how to run your business.

Keli’i Akina, the president of Grassroots Institute, this is exactly the kind of people you stand up for. Keli’i, these must have come with mixed blessings, like great idea, but wait a minute, they want to do what? 

Anyway, that’s the longest introduction we’ve done ever since we’ve known each other. Welcome to the program, my friend. How you doing?

Keli’i Akina: Mike, great to be with you and the listeners today. Aloha.

Mike: Am I right? Were your phones going off the hook yesterday about this? I cannot believe when I look into this how it could even be being considered.

Keli’i: Absolutely. People are incensed after they read what’s going on. Good intentions, what they say about it, the pathway to economic hell is paved with good intentions, and that’s exactly what this Bill 80 is all about. We care about employees who were let off because of the coronavirus lockdown rules. We want them to have jobs. Everybody wants that. Isn’t that right, Mike?

Mike: Not only is it right, Keli’i, but here’s the thing. Everybody also wants to know that we are suffering jointly. When you take a look at all the work that goes into this — and maybe you can explain this, because I know a lot of people don’t understand — some of these places have collective bargaining, some of these places have things that they must do. But hasn’t the current situation completely upset that apple cart 100%? I mean, this 2020 is the year that we better see our rearview mirror, doesn’t seem to be going away, and it’s causing us huge problems, particularly in the tourism industry.

Keli’i: Absolutely, Mike. The economy has been decimated and businesses, particularly hotels and those in the tourism industry, have to scramble in order to survive right now. What the government is trying to tell them to do, is do it the way the government wants them to do. Go back to March 1, before we had all of these regulations and lockdowns, and rehire everybody you let off; make sure that they all have the same job; make sure that they’re all paid the same amount of money; and there’s no way out of it. This becomes a law in Honolulu.

Now, this is going to just wreak havoc in terms of managing hotels, because there’s no way they can actually do that and predict that they’re going to have a market in order to sustain it. They may want to make some changes. For example, a hotel may say, “You know what, we can manage with 80% of the workforce. We’ll economize a little better, or maybe we’ll move people around from front desk to parking,” or something like that. But this rule would say, “You can’t do it; you got to go back and do it one way.”

One of the biggest things that’s wrong with this — you said it earlier — it’s the government telling businesses how to run their businesses. It’s the government saying, “We know better,” which is clearly not the case. It’s going to be counterproductive. In the end, it’s going to harm our hotels, and it’s going to cause them to ultimately have to possibly lay off. That means that the people it’s supposed to try to help are actually going to be hurt.

Mike: The very ones that they’re claiming now. Herein lies a real example. I don’t think that a lot of people probably wouldn’t buy into this until they see it for themselves. Look at how many venerable organizations, particularly restaurants, are not going to reopen. I mean, who would have thought that some of the finest restaurants that we have are taking a look at this thing and saying, “You know what, these new models don’t work. It costs us more to serve a dinner than we can sell a dinner for, so what are we going to do?” Is it the same condition existing with hotels as restaurants?

Keli’i: Absolutely. What entrepreneurs need to do is what they do best: They innovate. It’s not government that creates jobs. It’s not these kinds of draconian guarantees that create jobs. It’s businesses that are allowed to be creative, to be innovative, to find new ways to do things. So to go back and say, “We’re going to reset to March 1, and do everything the way you did things back then,” well, that’s the antithesis of what it is to be entrepreneurial.

Government is not entrepreneurial. Government is about politics, about guaranteeing so-called rights of individuals [that] don’t really exist. If you really care about the worker, what you’re going to do as a government is get out of the way of business and make sure that businesses can thrive and make sure that businesses can produce jobs. This kind of [bill] is working completely against that.

Mike: Isn’t it interesting, what you say? Because what happens every now and again, government reaches out and said, “You know what, we’ve got to create private partnerships. We got to go to the business world because they know what they’re doing. When it comes time to build this or do that, let’s let the builders do it, instead of let the government do it.” Because haven’t we proven that government doesn’t do — they don’t even govern well, let alone do economy well?

Keli’i: Well, there’s a mentality here. I have nothing against the unions. I think that they need to be more sustainable and their leaders need to represent them better. But what we’re doing is we’re treating a private hotel and a private union as if it were a government union, as if it were a public service, and that’s just not the case. There’s a reason that the private sector exists, and that’s to compete in the free market economy so that we can have the best services and best prices offered to the consumer and that businesses can grow. To get the government involved in this, in running a private hotel and private union as if it were a government union, is completely ridiculous.

Mike: Let me ask you this, because it is a lesson in civics, and I respect where you come from when you know about that stuff. That is, these hotels and these unions get together every now and again, or don’t, and they have these big things. We have strikes, then we have new agreements, and it never seems to be enough. I know I’ve heard you say this before: When things are doing well, private enterprise rewards the up statistic. In other words, they give out raises, they give out stuff. They do stuff because they’re appreciative of their employees that work hard to make that company a profit.

But when all of a sudden, things go sour and there are no hotel rooms, there’s a pandemic, how in the world do you tell a hotel, “You have to have 50 people working there tomorrow,” even though there’s only work for 10?

Keli’i: That’s simply because the people who are making this decision as to how to run the hotels now in Bill 80 are not business people. They’re not putting food on the table every day by creating jobs and creating a product and going to market with that. That’s what we have to leave to the private sector, because the private sector is best at knowing how to run businesses. This bill takes the capacity to run your own business away from you.

Now, you mentioned earlier that there are other businesses that may get affected by this. This could set a terrible precedent. What happens if we do the same thing now to restaurants, or to retail stores, or to car washes and so forth? You’ve got to go back to exactly the way the world was before March 1, 2020. You’ve got to rehire according to a formula. You’ve got to hire everyone back at the same rate, the same job. You can’t change any of that or else you’re going to get sued or put out of business.

We would bring business to a screeching halt. This mindset is a very dangerous mindset that says government knows best. We really have to recognize that government needs to get out of the way of business and let businesses do what businesses do best.

Mike: That’s a great analogy. We’re going to come back to more of that. Our guest is the president of the Grassroot Institute. Keli’i Akina is our guest this morning. We got more coming up. But right now it’s 7:45, we got to take a look at traffic, those of you who are trying to get to work. Here’s Taizo Braden. Taizo, what you got? Good morning.

[Intermission] 

OK, so you’ve got to ask yourself, “Is 80 a good or a bad bill?”

Our special guest this morning is OHA trustee-at-large, Keli’i Akina, also the president of the Grassroot Institute. We read a little excerpt of the vice president of the Grassroot Institute’s testimony that he gave yesterday in front of the City Council to Ron Menor and Carol Fukunaga and vice-chair; that’s Joe Kent. We learned from Keli’i a little bit earlier that this is unprecedented. What we do is we set these precedents sometimes, then you’ve got to live them.

Keli’i, it’s kind of long, but I also want to make sure that people understand what happened here. Councilman Tommy Waters, “by request,” passed the first reading on Oct. 7. Explain that, because you’re an elected official too. Sometimes, your constituents are going to come around and tell you, “We really, really need this.” What does this “by request” mean?

Keli’i: Well, somebody asked me to do it, basically. It’s not always clear to the public who it is that is asking people to do these things. When you look at this bill, you’ve got to say, “Who really benefits from it?” On the surface, it looks like it’s something that’s going to help the workers of the unions, but when you analyze it, it’s going to pull the carpet out from underneath them. That’s the key thing, to go deep into it and realize that this is a case where government is trying to take greater control over businesses. But it’s businesses that produce jobs. This Bill 80 is going to harm the ability of hotels to stay solvent and to actually create jobs.

Mike: Keli’i, isn’t it interesting that that can happen? Remember, we’ve talked about this before. I don’t think that any elected official, or anybody, wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to get to my office to see how badly I can screw Hawaii up.” Everybody thinks they’re doing the right thing, including this on the surface. Weren’t some people, all of a sudden, supported this because they didn’t realize what you said? What’s the backside? What’s the downside of this thing if it goes through?

Keli’i: Right, it sounds good. It espouses the idea of helping workers get jobs, which is something we all want to do. But the pathway to doing that is for the government to get out of the way and let the private sector create those jobs. Bill 80 doesn’t do that. We’ve got a report at Grassroot Institute. By the way, it’s Grassroot, not Grassroots. Grassroot Institute.

Mike: No S, yes. Grassroot.

Keli’i: Our report is called “Roadmap to Prosperity.” We’ve got 23 reforms that can be implemented immediately by the government in order to let businesses thrive and survive. That’s something that’s available at grassrootinstitute.org.

Mike: Gang, let me tell you something. It takes a mountain, I was going to say, it takes everybody to make this stuff work, not just a village. Isn’t it sort of interesting, Keli’i, that a lot of folks have, all of a sudden, looked at this as well, and even in the business? There’s some 700 members in the HLTA. We talked with Mufi Hannemann, their executive director and president, and found out the same thing — I mean, CEO and president. It’s interesting. A lot of these people are competitors, and a lot of these people are hoteliers, but a lot of them are just saying, “Hey, this doesn’t make any sense to any of us.” So why is it even there? What’s it going to take to make this thing go away? That’s what people want to know.

Keli’i: People have to rise up and call their councilmen and councilwomen. They have to tell their legislators not to take this path, either. It’s important for us as citizens to get involved in the voting process and also get on the phones with our elected officials. We don’t have enough of that in Hawaii. One of the reasons we don’t is people just sometimes don’t understand that the measures put forth by our lawmakers are often anti-business. We’ve got to recognize that unless we’re going to let business grow in Hawaii, we’re not going to be able to have the things that we want, such as jobs for people and good wages, and all of the things that are possible in an economically free environment.

Mike: I’m going to tell you, there’s already people that say that this is good because it does take into consideration occupancy and everything else. Isn’t that almost a red herring? I took a look through this and it says like, “OK, what does this really tell a hotel what it has to do with regards to its people?” What you said is true. Everybody’s got to come back. What about when a hotel can justifiably say, “I can’t afford to have 40 maids with 30% occupancy or 10% occupancy. I just can’t do it.”

Keli’i: That’s right. The language of the bill is very vague. It alludes to a proportionate return to 100% in terms of occupancy. It’s not clear from the language what exactly that means. Suppose the hotel wanted to run its business at 80% of the staffing it had before the coronavirus lockdowns because they want to become more efficient. They would be prohibited from doing that. It’s not the government that should tell a hotel how it should operate. The other thing about this is, how can you be sure what occupancy rates are going to be? Given the way that our lockdowns are going up and down, we could be going back and forth between different tiers, in which case hotel occupancy could plummet very rapidly. This would put the hotels back at great risk if they have to base their formula solely upon occupancy.

Mike: There’s another concern too, and maybe you can go and be represented of your members at Grassroot Institute and say that, “Look, nobody really knows what this is all about, but everybody is hell-bent on getting the economy going. We just are refusing to even consider that things could get worse as cases across the country are starting to go up.” How are we going to be keeping these doors open? How are we going to make sure people really even want to come here?

Keli’i: Absolutely. What we’ve got to do is recognize there are some basic things we were not doing before the coronavirus lockdowns that made us one of the worst economies in the country, especially for businesses. We’ve got to start doing those long-term things that will help us. For example, our government has to stop nonessential spending. It’s got to reduce taxation. It’s got to lighten the burden on Hawaii’s businesses. If you simply take steps toward that direction, you’ll do far more than something like this Bill 80 will do. In fact, Bill 80 goes in the wrong direction. It increases regulations upon businesses and makes it even harder for businesses to attract capital from the mainland in this kind of environment.

Mike: Is there anything, Keli’i Akina, president of Grassroot Institute and OHA at-large-trustee, is there anything that can be a phoenix rising out of the ashes in this thing? It looks like it’s such a bad deal. Can we throw it away, or can it be adapted to take into consideration some of the things that it is trying to provide?

Keli’i: This is the problem with resolutions such as Bill 80. The details are not very clear. I would say, it’s not just a mixed bag, it’s a dangerous mixed bag. It’s better not to pass this at all. It’s better to go back to the drawing board and say, “What we’ve got to do is strengthen the economy. We’ve got to reduce spending as a government. We’ve got to lighten the burden of taxation upon our businesses. We’ve got to do the basics, and as we do the basics, we can actually help our businesses.”

In fact, I would say, not only stop Bill 80 from going forward, reduce some of the existing requirements that are on businesses that are making it harder for businesses to operate. That’s the direction we need to go in order to stabilize the economy and let it grow.

Mike: In other words, there is no baby in the bathwater here. The whole thing’s got to go. What’s its next step? You’ve already done your testimony. I’m sure there’s going to be some more on this. What’s next for this thing?

Keli’i: Well, the Honolulu Council meets today, Tuesday, at 1:00 p.m. That’s where they’ll take a look at this bill. That’s a critical juncture, but as you pointed out, there are a great number of business organizations and businesses that have risen to the task, and they’re voicing their opposition. I think that’ll be very interesting to tune in today and see what happens at the City Council.

Mike: That’s why I wanted to make sure to get you on this morning, so that we could do it after yesterday, [when] we were talking with Mufi and then a lot of email, and a lot of reaction from people saying, “Doesn’t this look like meddling?” and “How can they tell a private enterprise what to do?” That’s exactly when we go full cycle of the conversation we’ve just had. That’s the thing that was shocking to me. I just couldn’t believe it. I can’t believe that they can tell me how many people have to come to work when even I don’t know how many customers I’m going to serve.

Keli’i: Well, the problem is this: The government is great at stopping and destroying things, like shutting down an economy. In fact, I marveled at the efficiency with which our government managed to destroy our tourism economy within a short period of time. It was instant, but the government is not good at creating things like jobs and businesses, because that’s not the role of government. Government is there to regulate. Government has to get out of the way and allow businesses to thrive.

Really, what we need is not so much a silver bullet, but a posture that has to be taken. That is, we’ve got to turn Hawaii into a business climate where businesses thrive, where the government is truly a supportive partner rather than a force that interferes with the process of entrepreneurship.

Mike: OK, we’re out the door to the heartbreak of the news here, Keli’i. What’s the best way to go to the Grassroot website and find out a little bit more about this Bill 80?

Keli’i: Grassrootinstitute.org. That’s Grassrootinstitute.org. We welcome everyone.

Mike: Looking forward to chatting with you on election night, Keli’i. Good luck in what you’re doing, and thank you for joining us this morning. Appreciate it.

Keli’i: Thank you, Mike, and thanks to all the listeners. Aloha.

Mike: We’ll be right back after the top-of-the-hour news, right here on The Answer. Don’t go away.