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It was a “twofer” on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, when Hawaii radio host Mike Buck spoke with Keli’i Akina of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii on “The Mike Buck Show,” heard daily on AM 65 and FM 92.3, The Answer.

Their 20-minute conversation focused on both the institute’s recent news release pointing out how Gov. Ige’s plan to “save” $2 billion in the short run will cost Hawaii taxpayers $8 billion the long run, and the institute’s new report, “Lockdown Versus Liberty,” on how the state’s emergency powers law needs to be reformed to better protect civil liberties.

The discussion about “Lockdown Versus Liberty” was especially significant since the report was released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the same day as the radio interview.

A complete transcript is below.

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1-18-21 Keli’i Akina on “The Mike Buck Show,” AM 65 and FM 92.3, The Answer

Mike Buck: What we’re doing here is putting 55 pounds of rice into a 50-pound bag, and it’s tough. We have a full boot, and one of the things that I was looking forward to is getting caught up to date with Keli’i Akina from Grassroot Institute. 

It turns out we got a twofer because what I originally called for … I saw this story, and some of you may have heard this, and some of you … in the business saw the release; it says saving money now … This is funny, because when you take a look at what saving money is, it’s really a manipulation of money. 

I found this out by looking through this [release]. Saving money is going to cost our kids and grandkids billions, with a B, of dollars. Exasperated obviously by COVID-19, but we were already running the freight train with one wheel on the set financially anyway with all of this deferred stuff.

Anyway, like I said, we’ll try to break it into two segments, first of which is going to be the story that came out about this power that our governor has that maybe he shouldn’t. Then secondly, or actually firstly, talking about saving money. 

This is something that Grassroot Institute does. If you don’t know about them, we’ll give you the website. You go and look what their mission is, what drives them, what doesn’t, and what their interests are. We’ve come to have an awful lot in common, with their President and CEO Keli’i Akina joining us today.

Happy Martin Luther King Day, Keli’i.

Keli’i Akina: Yes, Mike. Indeed, a happy Martin Luther King Day. I think it goes without saying that the world is a better place, our country is, because of the efforts of Martin Luther King to stand for our civil liberties.

Buck: I saw some really cool stuff earlier today, some of the pictures of his historic visit to Hawaii. It just was so nice seeing all these hundreds of people wearing lei and having this common thing. I think that maybe even Dr. King at that time was very impressed with how we in Hawaii were about interracial activities and families and all of that kind of stuff. I kind of think — I don’t know, maybe the world has changed a little bit — but I think, and you know this with your other hat, at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, that’s kind of how we are, the melting pot island — right? — or state.

Akina: Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, I think many of us will recall that famous photo of Dr. King and his comrades in Selma during the historic march. They’re all wearing lei.

Buck: I know, it’s fabulous.

Akina: If you ever wondered, why in the world are they wearing lei? It’s because there was such a connection to Hawaii, people set lei. In 1959, Dr. King spoke at both houses of our state legislature, the brand new State of Hawaii, and he told them that his dream was fulfilled in Hawaii. That it was here that he saw racial harmony. And he kept that with him, and that’s how he connected with us when he finally marched in Selma. I think we’ve got something to be proud of but also something we have to continue fighting for to live up to.

Buck: It’s a big challenge. I think we do have a leg up. A lot of people say this, and I say it and I mean it and I know you do, too, is, yeah, we’re not perfect. We don’t have complete racial harmony in Hawaii, but we’re a heck of a lot better off than a lot of places that’s for sure.

Akina: That is true, Mike, but at the same time, we can’t take it for granted. We have to realize that aloha applies to everyone here in Hawaii and that is what makes us the Hawaiian state. I think it’s worth preserving and defending.

Buck: One of the things like I said, on point here of what we’re talking about: Some of the things happening here, it’s actually been almost a shell game. I’ve been listening to Gov. Ige and all of this stuff. We’re saving this, we got that, we got this, and I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, none of that makes sense.”

When you came out with this release, I thought, “This makes sense.” Could you tell people where we are with the money that we’re saving or the rainy day fund that we have or just moving around money? It’s not creating new money at all, is it? Isn’t that also made even worse with the COVID disaster that we’re facing?

Akina: Well, the state administration has just announced that it’s going to save us $2 billion by stopping the payments it’s making on the unfunded liabilities for the health care fund for our public servants. Now, let me explain what that means. It sounds good, but it’s really like saying this: In your own household when you’re running out of money, you come home and you tell your spouse, “Honey, don’t worry about it. We’re going to save money because I’m going to stop making the car payment,” or “I’m going to stop paying the mortgage. We’ll use that money for our daily expenses.”

It doesn’t make sense in a household, and it doesn’t make sense in the government at all. That’s really what’s going on. It’s a sleight of hand.

Buck: For me, this has been, in my entire life, looking at things like the benefit package and some of the things that we’ve created there, mandated, you can’t blame the person at the other end is waiting for their benefits. They didn’t create the benefits, they’re just taking advantage of them. How do we slow the runaway freight train down a little bit? That’s a question. That’s what you came up with. Some of your responses, Keli’i, show me the way. That’s what I liked about this report.

Akina: Well, I think we definitely need to go the correct route. We need to stop digging a hole into the ground and borrowing more money and going into debt more. But the first thing we have to do is see how dire our situation is. You’ve got to take a look at exactly where our state is and on two levels, we’re in deep water. 

First of all, in terms of the money coming into the state, it has sunk tremendously. As a result of the shutdown of the tourist industry, and other businesses, we don’t have the tax money we need. So the bottom line is this: Over the next five years, we’re going to fall short by at least a billion dollars every year. That’s money that we need in our state government that we don’t have.

But to make it even worse, we also have debt. We currently have about $25 billion worth of debt that we owe our public servants and their retirement funds and their health care fund. We have another $5 billion of debt in infrastructure. I could go down a long list, Mike, but I’ll tell you, the state is really so in debt that we have a lot of $100 billion that we owe to different purposes over the next 30 years that we just can’t pay.

Buck: Remember though, Keli’i, we’ve talked in the past about this, and people really have to understand this. By mandate, we need about a balanced budget every year. And we’ve done that. But the only way we’ve done it is at the expense of the future, because we don’t have a printing press like the federal government. We have to have real dollars. Well, we’re using them all up, and at a rate faster than they can come in. You talked about that. I learned a lot of stuff about the Council on Revenues. They’ve come up with some pretty scary numbers, too, based on, our economy taking a lot longer to recover than we thought.

Akina: That’s right. I think this is one of the reasons we have to take a look at what households have to do. In a household situation, you’ve just got to tighten your belt. You’ve got to spend less. You got to save money. You’ve got to do things more efficiently. That’s pretty much the bottom line what our government needs to do. 

We could easily go back to 2015 when our population was lower, and our cost per government was lower, and just pay that much for our government expenditures now, and we’d do pretty well actually. There’s no reason we have to keep expending money and that’s the important thing.

There’s something else too. In order to pay for what we can’t afford, we’re looking at taxing the public. You and I did a program recently and saw that because the unemployment insurance fund has been depleted, the cost to businesses is going to triple in order to pay for unemployment insurance. That’s a huge tax hike coming next year. We’ve just got to find a way to keep taxes down because that’s going to harm businesses and people, and it’s ultimately going to end up in less dollars in tax revenue to the state.

Buck: We did experience some backlash after we did that. One guy said, “It’s to the point where this is going to make it impossible for me to expand. I’ve been expanding for the last couple of years. I’m going to have to either stop expanding or retract myself and actually not fill some positions that we need to hire.” That seems to have a bigger effect. Look at what you said last time we talked and that’s the number of people that are leaving Hawaii at a scary rate. These are potential. These are wage earners. These aren’t people on the dole, and these aren’t people that are retired. These are wage earners that are leaving.

Akina: That’s right. Mike, before we get too far away from it, you were talking earlier or asking me earlier about the fact that the government is going to stop paying the unfunded liabilities on the health care for our public employees. By trying to save $2 billion now, they’re going to end up skyrocketing in terms of interest costs in the future, so they’ll ultimately owe $8 million. Do the math there. Save $2 billion right now, end up owing $8 billion later.

The problem is whenever you push your debt into the future, you create an albatross that you have to pay later on, and we’re putting that on our children.

Buck: At what point in time do we get to that point where we are off the edge? You keep saying that we’re going to have to pay later on, but we’re not going to be able to at the current growth rate. How are we going to face that? What does any state do that gets in this pickle?

Akina: You talked about [this spectre of what] might happen. No one imagined what would take place and what did take place in 2020 as a result of the COVID crisis, and these shutdowns that ensued after that. We would never imagine the complete shutdown of the whole tourist industry. We never imagined the levels of unemployment.

Now, just put ourselves into that situation and look to the future. Could such a thing happen again? Absolutely. And if it would happen again, we would be absolutely unprepared for that. So we’re not out of the woods at all. We’ve got to return fundamentally to good business practice. We’ve got to spend only what we bring in. We’ve got to stop taxing our people. We’ve got to stop borrowing money. We have to become more efficient.

There are all kinds of ways we can become more efficient in the government. One, for example, is to get the government out of businesses that it can’t run very well and let the private sector run it, such as the airport or the hospitals, even janitorial services. Our state judiciary hires from the private sector for its janitors, and it saves about 30% on that. We can do this over and over again and find ways to save money in the government.

Buck: When we come back after a short little break, Keli’i and I are going to talk about another subject before we run out of time, and that is the power that lies right now in the governor. We’re talking about these lockdowns in these changes and all of these things to do with COVID, are maybe giving somebody a little bit too much. We’re going to find out more about that when we come back. Right now it’s 18 minutes after the hour of 4. One of the things that we’d like you to do is remember that we’re going to talk to the girl from the DLNR in a little bit, about that vandalism in both endangered species of the plants. Just awful stuff. We’ll be right back.

[Commercial break]

Buck: In my chat today with Keli’i Akina, the CEO and the president of Grassroot Institute, we have a two-pronged attack, and I wish we had more time, but we only have a few more minutes.

One of the things that I’m concerned about, in this lockdown-versus-liberty thing that I read from you Keli’i was this: Growing up in the retail business, I know that we are a house of cards. We’re all leaning together and they expect more and more and more out of us, and yet it’s been more and more restrictive to do business just to keep the doors open. In some respects, it’s looking like we’re biting the hand that feeds us. Secondly, it looks like there’s some controls being enforced over us that really are not very right. I don’t even think they’re constitutional. I don’t think that the governor should have all of that power to open and close businesses like he’s doing.

What’s going on in that, and where can we get more info?

Akina: Mike, I think the real problem is this: On the one hand, we want to make sure that we protect the public and protect from the coronavirus. I think everybody gets that. 

Buck: Amen.

Akina: We don’t want to throw caution to the wind. We want to wear our masks. We want to wash our hands. We want to social distance. That’s important. Certain aspects of the lockdown are essential. But on the other hand, we want to make sure that these lockdowns don’t result in the loss of our civil liberties in a permanent way.

We’ve seen our government acquire powers that it shouldn’t have, and that will only take away our freedoms. So we’ve written a new report at the Grassroot Institute that anyone can get, it’s called “Lockdown Versus Liberty: How Hawaii’s Experience in 2020-21 Demonstrates the Need to Revise the State’s Emergency Powers.” We take a hard look at the state’s emergency powers. We define what they are. We show what’s dangerous about them, and how they need to be changed. Anybody can get this at grassrootinstitute.org. It’s available right now, grassrootinstitute.org.

Buck: I went through that and it’s incredibly interesting. Particularly because the amount of thought going into this, it looks like it was a massive amount of thought done very, very quickly. I think it is scary. Growing up in the retail business, I can tell you right now, some of these retail stores … As a matter of fact, Keli’i, let me tell you about one I was at yesterday. I was at a little restaurant up in Hawaii Kai, it’s called Ba-Le. Everybody knows about them. Right now, there’s no sit-down; it’s take-out. Right next door to them, there’s a noodle place that I’ve never had a meal from. It said “Closed.” So I asked the girl, she said, “Oh no, they’re closed. They’re victims of the pandemic.”

Look at how many people are that’s happened to every day. We just need to take a better look. That’s why I thought this, “Lockdown Versus Liberty” piece of yours is pretty meaningful. It’s pretty concise.

Akina: Mike, let me tell you one of the issues we look at. Since March 5th of 2020, we have seen 20 emergency proclamations by the governor. Back then, we thought there would only be one. There’s clear language in the law that says that that lockdown order should have lasted for only 60 days, that the proclamation has a 60-day time limit. But we’ve issued proclamation after proclamation, so that it’s almost become infinite, the length of time that these lockdowns can take place. That’s one of the defects in the law that has to be corrected through the Legislature.

Buck: Yes, now what sort of support are you getting? Let’s explain how Grassroot Institute works a little bit and how many of our politicians rely on information gathered from organizations like yours that help them make decisions.

Akina: Well, w have done a nationwide study of the court cases that have been challenging the lockdown laws, so we’re able to give a detailed analysis of all of that. Basically, what we’ve discovered is that the courts are currently supporting the lockdown. That’s not surprising, because we’re in an emergency mode. If we go to the courts it’ll take many years, maybe even decades before the law gets changed.

But we’ve also looked at the laws throughout the nation and we found that Hawaii has some of the most restrictive laws, giving the greatest amount of power to its governor and its mayor. This is something that can be addressed in the legislature. The good news is that people can go to their legislators and tell them what they want them to do, and that legislators have to be reelected at the next election.

So what we’re doing is we’re urging people to educate themselves and discover what it is that legislators can do in order to fix our laws. 

The bottom line is this: We’re not opposed to our leaders. We’re not condemning them for taking emergency actions. What we’re saying is, don’t go too far. Let’s make sure that we put the limits in place that need to be here to preserve our rights and our liberties in the long run.

Buck: Yeah, I a hundred-percent agree. I can tell you that it is very exasperating for these lawmakers that you’re talking about, and even the enforcement people, when there are large groups of people that are in defiance of some of these things, [who] go anyway to have a bonfire on the beach or to go out and and gather and not pay attention to COVID protocol. That’s the thing I think they’re trying to achieve, but in some respects, they’re going overboard. They’re achieving some of these things, but it’s at the expense of the economy, not in spite of it. I don’t know what we can do.

Akina: One of the things that prompts very restrictive laws is the thought that there’s this one size that fits all. That sometimes arises when legislators and government leaders are looking at the public and seeing that there’s a certain population that is causing problems for the rest and that has to be stopped. Unfortunately, they hit with a very heavy hammer and as a result, everybody gets restrained. I think that a more educated approach would help in the future. Should there need to be lockdowns in the future, they should be specifically targeted to the population group that needs to be managed, not put out on top, on everyone.

Buck: Yes, that’s 100% true, but I shudder to think, and I know you talk to people every day like I do, that there are literally thousands of businesses here in Hawaii that are teetering on the edge of just having to close their doors. Once you do that, the return is very, very difficult, even if achievable at all.

Akina: That’s right. There’s no question about it. There are some individuals and some businesses that are completely irresponsible in the way they manage their care during this time. But on the other hand there are a vast majority that are very responsible,  that want to practice social distancing, wearing a mask, washing of hands and other practices that will protect the public and the businesses.  So it’s very important for the government to tailor its response, rather than have a one-size-fits-all, shut down everyone.

Buck: People who want to know about the “Lockdown Versus the Liberty,” what’s the best way to find the website and and take a good read of it?

Akina: Just go to grassrootinstitute.org. That’s grassroot, without an “s” at the end. That’s grassrootinstitute.org. You can get a free PDF copy of this report, “Lockdown Versus the Liberty.”

Buck: Yes, I think everybody should take a look at it and then let their legislators know what they think. Thank you for joining me, Keli’i. Always appreciate it.

Akina: Mike, always glad to be with you. Aloha.

Buck: Thank you, brother. There you go. Keli’i Akina, CEO and president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.