As Civil Beat’s primary reporter covering the Capitol, I get asked a lot about what I think came out of the Hawaii Legislature.
(My own quick take is in the article titled “Session Wrap: It Came From the Ledge.)
For one, Gov. Neil Abercrombie is still getting used to his new role as an executive. Not surprisingly, House Speaker Calvin Say and his lieutenants were calling the shots. And first-term Senate President Shan Tsutsui was overshadowed by his more visible, senior, counterparts.
With the session nearly two weeks in the rearview mirror, here are some observations about power — and productivity.
Expectations were high that Abercrombie would have marked success being a governor of the same party where he spent most of his 40 years in public service as a legislator, about half of that time in the state House and Senate. Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, meanwhile, is a former House leader.
In fact, Abercrombie consulted frequently with lawmakers, inviting them to his office, calling on the phone, in some cases testifying on his own legislation, namely the state budget.
A Civil Beat analysis showed that the governor succeeded in getting more than half of his own bills passed. But they did not include his biggest ideas on collecting revenue.
The bottom line is that only the Legislature controls the Legislature. But Abercrombie knows this, and I expect he will learn from his experience, however, and come back stronger next session.
In the House, the session began with a vote on Rep. Say’s bid for another term as speaker.
It’s unclear whether divisions between Say supporters and House Democrats have healed. But it’s worth noting that the House did not join in singing “Hawaii Aloha” at session’s end.
Real power in the House still emanates from Say and his lieutenants, especially “reps” like Oshiro, Blake Oshiro and Isaac Choy. Still, dissidents like Cindy Evans, Mark Takai and Roy Takumi can still make a difference, too.
Newbie Gil Keith-Agaran and veteran Bob Herkes were also influential.
House Minority Leader Gene Ward argues that his party was effective in many ways, including fighting the pension tax and an increase in the general excise tax. They certainly made their disagreements with Democrats loud and clear, and Ward says many GOP ideas made it into the other party’s bills.
He calls his caucus the “Awesome Eight,” and they include experienced veterans like Barbara Marumoto and Cynthia Thielen and promising newcomers like George Fontaine and Gil Riviere.
The most visible leaders this year were Ige, Brickwood Galuteria (the majority leader), Will Espero, Jill Tokuda, Rosalyn Baker and Clayton Hee.
These are the senators who got the most bills passed and were quoted most in the press.
Malama Solomon and Donovan Dela Cruz also made a lot of noise — think of their last-minute maneuvering to get a casino bill passed, or Dela Cruz’s opposition to a general excise tax hike — and will likely be factors in future leadership. Solomon, of course, previously served in the Legislature, and Dela Cruz formerly chaired the Honolulu City Council; they are hungry, aggressive and ambitious.
Republican Sam Slom? He remains a consistent — and loud — voice on conservative issues like controlling the growth and cost of government, and he has demonstrated that he can work with his Democratic colleagues. But, let’s face it, he’s a caucus of one.
Another observation is how awful the conference committee process is in terms of doing the people’s business.
This session, conference committee seemed particularly chaotic and opaque, especially in the last two days.
On April 29, the final day for all fiscal bills, Senate Vice President Donna Mercado Kim suddenly announced around midday that the Senate would not consider any bills after 6 p.m., though it has been customary in sessions past to negotiate late into the evening.
The deadline forced a mad scramble of lawmakers trying to rustle up the votes to send bills out of conference committee.
The following Skype chat between myself and Civil Beat reporter Michael Levine that afternoon captured just how much the deadline dictated events:
BLAIR: marcus is there for all that money stuff … they are going down to the wire
LEVINE: they’ve been waiting on FIN approval for days … ige just walked in too
BLAIR: it’s a pension standoff
LEVINE: if you want an update: Coffman still has no finance approval for SB1363, reconvening at 5:50 pm
BLAIR: let’s wait until 6, plz … in the middle of salaries bill
LEVINE: OK … all eyes on marcus in here, pretty wild
BLAIR: … yes, he is a rock star
LEVINE: he seems quite agitated
BLAIR: now marcus is in my room
LEVINE: haha i knew i saw him sneak out! what room are you
BLAIR: 325 … he’s needed for votes … there is a 6 pm deadline
LEVINE: yeah we need him back down here too … souki angrily on the phone with someone: we need finance approval and marcus isn’t down here to vote?!?
BLAIR: cool … this 6 pm deadline is driving everyone nuts
To the uninitiated, that exchange may be too much inside baseball.
But in many ways the chat underscores two critical observations of the session: the power struggle between the House and Senate, and the matter of unfinished business.
Despite being from the same party with overwhelming majorities, House and Senate leadership could not agree on critical issues like the pension tax, which was a centerpiece of Gov. Abercrombie’s budget. Sen. David Ige, chairman of Ways and Means, refused to agree to the position of Rep. Marcus Oshiro, chairman of House Finance.
Left on the conference committee table were many bills, including ones that would have spent more than $2 million for security for the APEC meeting, pay nearly $3 million for legal settlements and give some $4 million to the University of Hawaii medical school.
Another measure, the one continuing a 5-percent pay cut for lawmakers, also died, though it was pulled to the floor on the last day of session for a vote. It is now on the governor’s desk but, because House and Senate conferees never resolved their differences — the bill could contain constitutional errors.
Conclusion: Conference committee is not an effective way to do business, unless one is intentionally trying to kill legislation and leave no fingerprints.
Which brings me to a second conclusion: I really, really wish the public could see and hear what these folks have to say behind closed caucus doors. It’s where the real power is exercised, where the real decisions are made.
The Legislature is, regrettably, exempt from state Sunshine Law. But I think it would be a wonderful exercise in democracy for our elected officials to deliberate over policy and ideas in true public fashion. Floor statements and comments in committee hearings is not nearly enough.
Next year, because of the decennial redistricting, all 76 seats will be on the ballot. Knowing more about what lawmakers did just might help voters decide who should fill those seats.