House Republicans call it the “death wish,” by which they mean when Democrats take what they like in a Republican bill and make it their own.

That’s the way things work in a state capitol where barely 10 percent of the legislators are Republicans.

They say they don’t take it personally.

The dominance of Hawaii’s Democrats might suggest that only one party is making policy calls. And clearly the minority party struck out completely with its legislative packages, with Senate Republicans — all two of them — not even introducing a caucus agenda. But an examination of the results of the most recent legislative session indicates the minority does have an impact.

“We support 95 percent of all the bills,” said Sen. Sam Slom, the minority floor leader and one of two Republicans in the 25-member Senate. “But everyone talks about ones we fight over.”

Rep. Gene Ward, minority policy leader, agrees.

“Eighty percent of stuff that comes before us is really nonpartisan, and they really are not controversial or political,” he said.

Ward estimates another 15 percent of legislation usually comes from the private sector, such as small business. “The remaining 5 percent of bills are really ideologically juggernauts. That’s not a bad way to run a government.”

Of the 46 bills introduced this session by the House minority caucus — most of them addressing education reform, tax relief, clean energy, or transportation — none passed.

The GOP points to the decision not to expand the General Excise Tax as an example of its influence in spite of pressure from some Democrats and labor unions.

“I believe our caucus had to keep them honest on this broad-base tax, that we could balance the budget and had a six-year plan of our own to do it,” said Rep. Lynn Finnegan, minority leader and one of only six Republicans in the 51-member state House. “I think it played strongly into the resistance on this.”

Rep. Blake Oshiro, the majority leader, had a different take.

“When it comes to something like the GET, my perception is that the biggest factor overall was the governor (a Republican), because we knew she was opposed to an increase and we knew we would need two-thirds support to override a veto,” Oshiro told Civil Beat. “We didn’t, and at that point it kind of fell off the table.”

Oshiro agreed, however, that the views of Republican legislators played into deliberations, particularly during floor debate.

“I think they have a valid role in terms of the democratic process, and I respect what they bring to the table,” he said. “I think we do work pretty collegially on most issues. I personally get along really well with Rep. Finnegan, Rep. Cynthia Thielen and Rep. Barbara Marumoto. We agree on a lot of issues.”

Which isn’t to say Republicans aren’t often disappointed about legislative outcomes.

Rep. Thielen, assistant minority leader, for example, initially supported adding a $1-per-barrel tax on most oil products in Hawaii. By the time the bill was amended in conference committee, 60 percent of the revenue from the tax was directed into the state’s general fund. Original language in House Bill 2421 directed the bulk of the funds to clean-energy programs and a smaller amount to agricultural-security programs.

“It was not supposed to go into the general fund. They left only a scant 25 percent for renewable energy,” said Thielen. “What it says is the state is just treading water and is not moving forward on its green energy future. The governor was right to veto it.”

House Democrats, including Oshiro, overrode that veto on the last day of session.

Sometimes Republicans are surprised to learn a bill they introduced is later revived. That was in the case of a measure Slom introduced in 2009 that prohibited law enforcement from seizing firearms and ammunition from citizens in an emergency situation such as an environmental disaster or national crisis.

Senate Bill 358 was deferred in March 2009 by the House Committee on Public Safety, but bills have a two-year shelf life. In March 2010 the bill received a new hearing, was amended, and agreed upon by House and Senate conferees including Slom. By mid-April it passed the full Legislature with little opposition — and Slom’s name still on it as the sponsor.

“I was shocked, but pleasantly,” said Slom.

Slom was surprised as well when Sen. Brian Taniguchi, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee, blew Slom a “death kiss” of his own.

Taniguchi introduced by request Senate Bill 532, which limits the civil liability of property owners for damages to persons “injured or killed on premises while committing certain felony offenses.” Slom introduced a bill with similar language in 2009 only to see it go nowhere.

“It magically reappeared, went through conference and was adopted this session,” said Slom. “That was great.” He voted for it, though his name was no longer on it as sponsor.

SB 358 and SB 532 both await the governor’s signature.

Senate Republicans saw another bill with wide support killed at the close of session.

Following the lead of another surfing mecca, Australia, Senate Bill 2646 would have designated two surfing reserves on Oahu. Introduced by Slom and Sen. Fred Hemmings, the minority leader and a former professional surfing champion, SB 2646 had the support of influential Democratic Senators Robert Bunda, Carol Fukunaga and Clayton Hee, the latter a senator who has clashed with Hemmings over many issues but found common ground on surfing.

SB 2646 passed 25-0 in the Senate but was recommitted to conference committee in the House on April 29.

“The bill was very innocuous, very well-intentioned, and would do nothing more than celebrate two of the world’s most historic surf sites, Waikiki and the North Shore,” Hemmings told Civil Beat. “But it was killed at the last minute of the last day of session sine die despite having passed through three readings in the House.”

Hemmings, who is retiring this year, blamed the bill’s failure on a House Democrat Hemmings declined to identify.

“It’s rare when this happens, but I can tell you it really upset all my Senate colleagues,” said Hemmings. “My gratitude goes to Sens. Fukunaga and Hee who worked really hard on the bill and mentored it through conference committee.”

Hemmings’ bill hardly rises to to the level of an increase in the GET or raiding the state’s hurricane fund, another action opposed by Republicans. But its demise underscores the power of one-party dominance in Hawaii.

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