HONOLULU, January 22, 2013 — Unstable markets and volatile commodity prices have made food security one of the top priorities for Rep. Jessica Wooley, the new chair of the Hawaii state House standing committee on agriculture. Wooley, who also has a degree in agriculture and resource economics, warns the recession revealed a critical vulnerability to food and energy shortages that require broader market diversification to buffer against a future crisis.
I spoke with Rep. Wooley to learn more about how elected leaders can address the need for food sustainability in America’s most remote state as well as her take on the direction of the all-new 27th Legislature of Hawaii. With hot button issues such as the future of the Act 55 (2011) Public Land Development Corporation, renewable energy income tax credits and marijuana legalization all being considered this session, Hawaii is truly the state to watch for significant change this year.
Danny de Gracia: Representative, Hawaii has a completely new state legislature with new members and a new leadership team. Just last week was Opening Day and I see that you have a new assignment as the chair of the House committee on agriculture. So how does that feel and what’s your thoughts on how this year’s session will go?
Representative Jessica Wooley: I’m very excited about this session. I think we will have hearings on issues that have not been heard adequately in the last few sessions, so I’m really looking forward to that and I think new voices will make for a better policy. I think we’ll have a more inclusive discussion so that everyone’s at the table.
DDG: That sounds great. What would you say are some of your primary legislative goals as the new chair of agriculture?
Rep. Wooley: My priority is putting more local food on local plates. I think that we can work on the entire food chain in a more systematic way. I think that agriculture is in many ways very basic – land, water, some infrastructure processing and labor.
It’s one of the best industries to be able to focus on and I think that we have an opportunity to use this time because everybody is ready for a change. Right now also with food security issues, I think we’re realizing how critical it is that we focus on preserving our agriculture and investing in it.
DDG: When a lot of people around the nation think of Hawaii, they still think of the plantation days when we exported a lot of sugar cane, pineapple and other things, but today in reality Hawaii is not quite the same agricultural engine that it used to be.
What happened to the agricultural economy? Is that just a sign of the times or do you think Hawaii put too much emphasis on tourism development and kind of lost its agrarian roots? What do you think happened?
Rep. Wooley: I certainly think we lost the focus on agriculture and the shift on to development has certainly had an effect. We’ve lost a lot of agricultural lands already and I think people are now also realizing we have to also invest in our younger generation and make it profitable. I think land and labor are so connected in Hawaii.
It’s hard to compete internationally, but I think especially as some of our local produce and specialty products get a foothold, then we will be competitive, and we have to just be smart about it and we have to adjust the land usage up front. There is no question that will always be our challenge because we have limited land.
DDG: It seems like the Act 55 PLDC issue ties directly into that because some people are worried that if the PLDC is allowed to stand, agriculture will totally take a hit because the trend is not toward sustainability or local agriculture, but more towards building more hotels, building more shopping centers … so do you think that the PLDC will be dealt with this particular session?
Rep. Wooley: I believe it will be dealt with, my hope is that we can get a repeal through so that we can have a fresh start.
DDG: Well I notice that Governor Abercrombie actually put out a press release –
Rep. Wooley: I saw that!
DDG: ...he basically said that he wanted to find a working solution to the PLDC. So … I’m fairly experienced in politics but I kinda read that press release and I said to myself, “Wow, what does this mean?”
Do you think this is a policy telegraph that if the House and the Senate repeal Act 55 that he won’t stand in the way and veto it? Does this mean that he wants the core of the PLDC but will still preserve it in some other entity if its repealed? What do you think is going on here?
Rep. Wooley: Well I think a repeal is going to be a challenge simply because it’s unusual to repeal a bill. So a repeal will be difficult. But as I said I’m hopeful because do I think it has impeded public policy and I think will have a negative effect on agriculture. Right now DLNR is supposed to be going through their inventory of land and identifying land that’s supposed to shift over to the Department of Agriculture.
Now they have a new priority which is to identify land under the Public Land Development Corporation’s agenda for commercial development – as you said, building hotels – and those types of activities.
There’s no question that the use of public land has shifted with the PLDC away from agriculture and preserving agriculture and towards building more hotels.
I think that given what we’ve seen with our economy the last four years, it’s great we have a tourist industry that helps provide jobs, and one of the policy questions raised by this issue is “Do we need to make it a bigger industry?” and I don’t think we need to spend public resources making it a bigger industry. I think the recession actually showed us we have to diversify our economy, not make it more dependent on a single industry.
So I think it would be going the wrong direction to not give our economy the chance to diversify because if we continue to pour taxpayer dollars, public lands into promoting commercial development, there’s not much land left.
You look at fifteen years ago what was here, it’s pretty different. We all benefit from tourism and it was a great thing that we invested in it at the time, but it’s really important that our policymakers focus on diversification.
DDG: Absolutely, you’re right. I was just talking to someone a couple of weeks ago on the economics behind tourism and I was explaining to them that tourism is good, but when you gear your entire economy towards tourism, you’re basically just consuming but not producing. It’s inflationary to have increased external dollars chasing a scarcity of goods and services. It’s bad if you’re consuming more than you’re producing.
Certainly while hospitality is part of Hawaii’s legendary charm, we still need to look out for the needs of our own people and think about producing for Hawaii. But speaking of resources and sustainability, I know that one of the big issues coming up this session is the solar income tax credit.
Rep. Wooley: Right.
DDG: Do you think that’s going to be cut or do you think the legislature will preserve the tax credit?
Rep. Wooley: That’s a good question. Just a follow-up on that kind of sustainability/energy issue and the tourist industry, that is another reason it’s so important because we are very vulnerable on an energy front.
The tourist industry is entirely dependent on oil prices, so I think we are really putting ourselves at risk if we don’t diversify. The recession and the increase in oil prices showed us what we could see in the future if we don’t prepare better or make sure that we are self-sufficient and energy independent.
Regarding the solar tax credit, I know that we are going to be having a lot of bills introduced, I’ve already seen several. There will be a change proposed, so what will happen is anyone’s guess.
My perspective is that I’ve been excited to see the industry take off. I think it’s a great investment and using public-private funds to help us be more independent and remove some of that dependence on foreign oil. But I think that we have to be real careful with tax credits and making sure that we’re not giving shock treatment to the industry.
Industries need consistency and predictability, and so I have been emphasizing that whatever we do, it shouldn’t be flip-floppy. One of my criticisms of the past few sessions and some of the policies is that we have flip-flopped on whether we want to promote an industry, and that is so bad for every other industry because if you jump up and down and claim you’re going give everybody tax credits and you pass a law but then the next year you repeal it, it’s pretty confusing for everyone.
DDG: That’s right, absolutely, you’re right. Predictability and stability is important for capital creation because if people don’t know what’s going to happen each session, they’ll just stay out and go someplace where they have less volatility.
Rep. Wooley: Right, and I think our policymakers need to think about that. We have to think about the big picture and approach it from a strategic perspective. We want to create something that makes sense so you can do business here.
DDG: Sure. One of the things my readers have been asking me about is Hawaii now has a bill I think in the House that proposes to decriminalize marijuana. Have any of the other members talked about that? Do you have a feel for how the House is going to act on that or is it still kind of a developing issue?
Rep. Wooley: I think that it’s developing issue. We’ve had hearings before [in past sessions] on some of the existing medical marijuana laws themselves and there are problems with it and I think we’ve been aware of that and whether we or not correct those problems this session … I don’t know, but I certainly hope so. I know there’s a good chance.
I know, for example, actually just the other day Rep. Cynthia Thielen was talking to me about a couple of her initiatives on hemp which I thought is an agricultural issue, and so I’m definitely open to hearing those types of bills.
DDG: So what would you say is the number one bill you would like to see passed this session? What’s your “dream bill” – the number one thing you’d like to see passed?
Rep. Wooley: That’s a great question, you know one of the things that I’m always committed to is making sure our kids have an even better future and more options than we have had. I will be focusing on programs to promote our youth connecting with how food is grown and how easy it is to grow.
I also have a bill that I’ve been working on that will put more emphasis back into the 4-H program. It’s small but in my mind it makes a big difference. I really think it helps young people grow and perpetuate for our next generation farmers and ranchers.
DDG: That’s smart. I remember when I was growing up in high school in Texas, the 4-H program was instrumental and it really did make a difference for everyone.
Rep. Wooley: Yeah, definitely. I’m real excited!
Danny de Gracia is a political scientist who lives in Hawaii. For more articles, interviews and to find out more about Danny, follow him on his official blog!
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