Hawaii Gov. David Ige mostly lived up to his campaign promise to work collaboratively with the Legislature during the 2015 session, but his young administration’s communication with lawmakers frustrated some of the key players.
Senate and House leaders said they did not mind their former colleague’s hands-on approach. Ige’s involvement behind the scenes fostered agreements on the overall state budget and bills to privatize Maui hospitals and reconfigure the Turtle Bay conservation deal.
But he didn’t always have the golden touch, as evidenced by his cheerleading during a two-day confirmation hearing for his ill-fated nominee to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Sylvia Luke, who leads the House Finance Committee, said she and her Senate counterpart, Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda, met weekly with Ige, his chief of staff, Mike McCartney, and Budget Director Wes Machida.
“We had a standing meeting from the beginning of session to discuss some of the appropriation measures and some of the challenges,” Luke said. “That was very helpful.”
She said having the House, Senate and administration working together helped produce “workable and decent bills” this session, which began in January and wrapped up Thursday.
“Working with the administration was a learning curve for the administration as well as for us,” Senate Majority Leader Kalani English said. “We had to understand their style, their people — as far as who to contact for different issues — and what were their goals and objectives.”
Legislative leaders wished Ige’s department heads would have provided useful input on bills earlier in the session.
“A lot of the good legislation that we have is much to do with the governor and how he helped us in crafting the legislation.” — House Speaker Joseph Souki
English said the administration apparently had an internal policy of department representatives not testifying on bills before the March 12 first crossover — when lawmakers pass bills over to the opposite chamber for consideration.
“What we need to see is the real substance and not at the 11th-and-a-half hour,” Tokuda said, noting that much of the administration’s testimony early on was often in boilerplate language.
The sooner lawmakers see where the administration actually stands on a bill and what concerns it has with the language in it, she said, the sooner they can consider revising it to produce a final version that isn’t rushed by deadlines.
“We don’t like that,” Tokuda said of the crunch time at the session’s end. “That’s not helpful for us, that’s not helpful for the public, that’s not helpful for the administration.”
Senate President Ron Kouchi said having conversations between lawmakers and the governor sooner also helps with transparency.
“Getting engaged earlier will allow us to have it incorporated in our hearing process and allow better public participation,” Kouchi said.
Ige could not be reached for comment, a spokesperson said.
Ige asked House Speaker Joseph Souki in April to reconsider a key stand. Souki had agreed to the Senate version of a bill to transition Maui Memorial Medical Center — part of Hawaii Health Systems Corporation’s state-run system of public hospitals — to nonprofit management. Ige had several concerns, including the impact on public workers.
The governor called a press conference April 21 to announce a deal with the House and Senate leaders. Souki and then-Senate President Donna Mercado Kim emphasized at the time that they were happy Ige was taking a leadership role and that they would work together.
The bill joined hundreds of other measures that lawmakers debated over the next two weeks in an end-of-session negotiating period known as conference committee. The legislation ultimately passed with more protections for members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association.
“We’ve worked with the governors in the past but not as close as this one,” said Souki, who met with Ige twice a month during the session.
A similar situation occurred with the deal to conserve land on the North Shore of Oahu owned by Turtle Bay Resort, a revision of a last-minute agreement negotiated during the 2014 session.
House lawmakers nearly killed a measure that would have extended funding to protect the land, but the governor helped renegotiate the deal. The Legislature ended up passing a measure that saves 635 acres at Turtle Bay, including 55 acres that the state will own outright, and lowers the state’s price tag from $40 million to $35 million.
The governor’s involvement didn’t always pay dividends.
His most publicized misstep was nominating Castle & Cooke lobbyist Carleton Ching to lead the DLNR.
Ige alarmed environmentalists when he stuck with his ill-fated pick and didn’t do an effective job of explaining or defending it in the face of widespread opposition.
The governor sat through much of a two-day confirmation hearing before the Senate Water and Land Committee, chaired by Sen. Laura Thielen. At one point Ige stood up and interrupted the proceedings to defend his nominee in the middle of a tough line of questioning from Thielen.
“I think the guy who ran for office is the guy we have. Whether you think that’s good or not is up for debate.” — Colin Moore, University of Hawaii political scientist
After seeing support for Ching’s confirmation falter in the Senate, Ige withdrew the nomination.
Hawaii Pacific University professor of communication John Hart said the Ching nomination may have the lasting implication of putting the governor on the radar of the environmental community, which will be watching to see whether he appears to be more friendly to environmental or corporate interests.
It’s too soon to judge Ige, Hart said. “There have been certainly no disasters, but certainly a couple of missteps.”
The Ching confirmation hearing wasn’t the only time the governor went to observe lawmakers first-hand. He found himself in a front-row seat during a critical meeting between House and Senate lawmakers who were working on the overall state budget bill, which includes funding for the governor’s office.
Luke and Tokuda chaired the hearing, noting his presence. Given that he started the year with a budget plan left by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Ige said he had to work closely with the Legislature in the first few months to put his stamp on the state spending plan.
“Ultimately, he’s a different branch,” Luke said after the session ended Thursday. “His opinion matters to us, but ultimately it’s the Legislature that passes the different bills. His job is to carry out the wishes of the Legislature.”
That belief in the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches is what led Sen. Josh Green to rebuff the governor’s efforts to get involved during the final week of conference committee.
Green refused to meet with Ige to discuss a bill to set up a system for establishing medical marijuana dispensaries, emphasizing that governor had the right to veto it if he wished.
Green was eventually removed as lead Senate negotiator and the bill passed the Legislature Thursday.
The governor’s direct involvement with Turtle Bay, the Maui hospital, the state budget and medical marijuana all happened late in the session.
“We’ve asked the executive that if they would like to intervene if they would please let us know a little bit sooner,” English said. “With the legislative process, there is a timetable and they know the timetable. They should’ve perhaps followed that and come to us sooner.”
But English noted that it’s the governor’s first term.
“They’re still getting their feet wet,” English said. “And yes, we did have some very frank discussions on the Maui hospital, on Turtle Bay, on some other issues. I think as we go into the next session we’ll fine-tune how we talk to each other and how we refine the bills.”
The governor’s behind-the-scenes, hands-on approach largely lived up to expectations.
Neal Milner, a longtime local political analyst, said there are signs that Ige is good at what he always said he would be good at: bringing people together. Milner said the governor’s handling of two issues, the state’s technology initiative and early childhood education, were telling because in both cases he didn’t get everything he wanted.
It’s characteristic for Ige to accept a piecemeal approach, Milner said.
But the University of Hawaii political science professor emeritus said there’s still a lot to learn about Ige.
“There really wasn’t an out-and-out compelling issue in the Legislature this time that really tested him,” Milner said. “There’s nothing that really happened here that breaks the Ige mold. I think the more important thing is that the mold is still forming.”
Political analyst Colin Moore said Ige’s sometimes poor communication wasn’t a surprise.
Moore, a UH political science professor, said he thinks Ige has lived up to the image he presented during the campaign: a quiet, detail-oriented leader.
“I think the guy who ran for office is the guy we have,” Moore said. “Whether you think that’s good or not is up for debate.”
Souki considers Ige a partner who has been very open. He described his first meeting with the governor, in which Ige bought bentos for everyone.
“That’s how the relationship began and we’ve fostered it as it’s gone along,” Souki said. “A lot of the good legislation that we have is much to do with the governor and how he helped us in crafting the legislation.”
Lawmakers said the next months will be telling. The governor has until June 29 to announce the list of bills he is considering vetoing, with final decisions required by July 14.
It’s possible Ige won’t veto anything. And if he does, it will likely be for technical reasons, they said.