A veteran lobbyist was asked the other day of his assessment of things at the 2011 Legislature, and how the Abercrombie administration would fare.

“You have to remember — the Senate president was 19 when Neil last worked in this building,” he said.

The lobbyist was referring to Shan Tustsui, age 39.

His point was that a lot of things have changed since Abercrombie, age 72, was a state senator (1980–1986) and state representative (1975–1979).

House Speaker Calvin Say, who turns 59 on Feb. 1, was in the House then, having been first elected in 1976. But it’s worth noting that Say was a student of Abercrombie’s when the governor was a lecturer.

Civil Beat’s point is that the Legislature, though still thoroughly in the hands of Democrats, is a different legislative body than it was a decade ago — and even last session.

From the fifth floor down to the chamber level, there are new faces, new leadership in the Senate and still unresolved leadership in the House.

On the one hand, it’s exciting; there’s a palpable buzz about the building even before session starts Jan. 19.

But there is also anxiety and an unsettled feel.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Change, as the saying goes, is good.

But let’s look more closely at the dynamics at play and consider how the uncertainty about leadership in the House is affecting state business.

The House

Calvin Say is expected to meet with his supporters Wednesday to again see if he can move the dial on the stalemate over speaker.

Now in its third month, the battle over speaker has veteran Legislature observers recalling the 1970-1971 fight between incumbent Tadao Beppu and challenger Hiroshi Kato. Like today, House Republicans were involved.

Whatever the outcome between Say’s bloc of 25, Sylvia Luke’s 14, three independents that lean toward Roy Takumi and the eight Republicans who have endorsed Say, there will be bruised feelings all around. The tension is wearing on many inside the Capitol.

One wonders how it might affect legislation like civil unions — an emotional, divisive issue to begin with — or crafting a budget that, in the absence of tax and fee increases, requires more cuts.

One upshot is that the GOP minority, under new leader Gene Ward and communications director Lenny Klompus, has been emboldened. Though outnumbered 43-8, they think they actually have some gravitas.

One downside is the way House freshmen have been treated during interregnum: Because of the House re-organization they had to share offices and phones. And a replacement for Maile Shimabukuro is expected shortly.

“Do you think anybody cares about all this?” a House dissident recently asked me.

I said that, while the Capitol can resemble a big plastic bubble, with most folks outside completely unaware of what’s going on inside, the struggle over speaker is bouncing off the reflecting pools and into the larger community.

Government officials, interest groups, lobbyists and others are not entirely sure whom to approach to discuss their concerns, even though the leadership from the last session is acting as if it’s still in charge.

The reality is that settling the speaker question will almost certainly lead to major changes in committee leadership and makeup.

It will also make it possible for the Democratic caucus to come together and finalize an agenda for the session. That’s something the Senate has already made progress on.

One other unsettled bit of business is the Legislature’s official calendar, which must be agreed upon by the speaker and the Senate president, cannot be set until the speaker question is resolved.

The Senate

By contrast, the 24 Senate Democrats moved quickly to fill the giant puka left by Colleen Hanabusa. Shan Tsutsui and David Ige emerged as the primary victors, with Tsutsui bringing another quality besides youth: He’s from Maui, the first time in decades there has been a neighbor island president.

(Calvin Say’s predecessor, Speaker Emeritus Joe Souki, is from Maui as well.)

But Tsutsui is untested, and his election helped lead to the departure of (so far) two senators who went to work for the administration. Another may follow suit. Three senators have already been appointed by Abercrombie.

It’s already a different Senate just two months after the election.

For now, Tsutsui is not likely to lose his post. But while the House has two factions, the Senate has several.

Tsutsui is supported by at least seven other senators while a supporting coalition includes Ige and at least six other senators.

Five other senators were affiliated with Hanabusa and it’s unclear where their loyalties now lie. And at least two senators align themselves with no faction at all.

(There is only one Republican in the Senate).

Hanabusa’s greatest talent was finding a way to maintain a ruling coalition that got things done. She is also an attorney — Tsutsui is not — and her legal skills came in handy.

The Election

Because of the 10-year Census and reapportionment, all 76 lawmakers will face voters and, in some cases, redrawn districts.

That may add a sense of urgency to get important legislation done in a non-election year, as is common, and to be less adventurous next year (although it’s worth noting that issues like civil unions did not seem to bother voters at all in 2010).

Abercrombie will no doubt be helped by Schatz, who served in the Legislature in the last decade.

But, as that veteran lobbyist also pointed out, during the last 10 years the Legislature was essentially at war with the executive — eight years under a Republican and the last few years of Democrat Ben Cayetano’s second term.

Political party aside, Democratic lawmakers are used to (mostly) getting their way and don’t like to be told by a governor how to do things. Case in point: Look at how unhappy members of the Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees were when they found out that the administration’s budget wouldn’t be finalized until more than halfway through session.

One of Abercrombie’s skills is an ability to reach across aisles and seek compromise and consensus. He is at heart, after all, a legislator.

In the topsy-turvy world that is the 2011 Legislature, the governor may need all the skills he can muster.

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