With the end-of-session Senate shakeup last May, power was consolidated among the members of the factions that supported Ron Kouchi to be the new president.

Now, as attention turns to the start of the 2016 session Wednesday, there are concerns that too few have too much control over what legislation might advance in the 25-member chamber.

And there are questions about whether some committees were merged to sideline members of the group that had wanted to keep Donna Mercado Kim as Senate president.

The Hawaii Senate is under new leadership this session after Ron Kouchi replaced Donna Mercado Kim as president.
The Hawaii Senate is under new leadership this session after Ron Kouchi replaced Donna Mercado Kim as president. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kouchi maintains that the ultimate goal is finding a more effective way of getting the people’s work done.

“We felt at the end of last session that hopefully reorganizing in this fashion will result in even better results,” he said Tuesday. “We look forward to beginning the work and anticipate getting a lot done. We clearly know we have our work cut out for us.”

Things are more stable in the 51-member House, with Speaker Joe Souki comfortably maintaining control ever since he formed an alliance with Republicans to end Calvin Say’s 13-year reign as head of the chamber in 2012. Souki has since gained sufficient support among Democrats alone to maintain his position, according to lawmakers.

But in the ever-dynamic Senate, which has seen four leadership changes in the past decade, there’s a degree of uncertainty — particularly among those who lost power — over what this coming session will bring with Kouchi at the helm.

The session is expected to open without much fanfare. There won’t be entertainment as in the past, but the leaders of both chambers are expected to deliver remarks in the morning. The statements will likely expand on themes announced last week about how this year’s focus is “solidifying Hawaii’s foundation” and “creating a better life” for residents. In the past, major initiatives have also been touted.

Next week, however, will be far more telling as the details of the legislation become public and Gov. David Ige spells out his priorities. The deadline to introduce non-administrative bills, grants and subsidies is Friday. Ige is set to deliver his State of the State address Monday, and the administration’s package of bills is due Jan. 25.

Perhaps more revealing will be where those bills are assigned, given the power that a handful of committee chairs have to shape an entire session.

This is the second year of the biennium, so any bill alive last session is technically still alive this session and does not need to be re-introduced. However, the Senate does plan to re-assign bills to the various committees since they’ve changed.

Knowing where a bill is going and what hurdles it has to overcome before a full vote on the floor is often illuminating.

The referrals can spell death for one bill and breathe life into another. While sending a bill to just one committee can aid passage, referrals to multiple committees can mean the opposite.

While committees are comprised of numerous members, tradition dictates they follow the chair’s lead. And a chair has the power to simply not give a bill a hearing if he or she is either against it or lacks the support to pass it out.

Outgoing Senate President Mercado Kim walks away after giving the gavel to new Senate President Donald Kouchi. 5 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Outgoing Senate President Donna Mercado Kim walks away after giving the gavel to new Senate President Ron Kouchi, May 5. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A few key players were shuffled around when Kouchi became president.

In at least a few cases, lawmakers who were considered authorities on certain issues — Sen. Josh Green for health, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland for housing, Sen. Russell Ruderman for food, and Sen. Laura Thielen for land — were replaced with lawmakers who supported the reorganization.

Green, the only medical doctor in the chamber, was pulled from his post as head of the Health Committee but kept the token position of majority floor leader.

And instead of remaining as a separate committee, Health was added to the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, which Sen. Roz Baker will head. She previously chaired Commerce and Consumer Protection.

Baker broke with the Chess Club faction that had installed Kim as Senate president in 2012 through an alliance with a four-member faction led by Sen. Jill Tokuda. Tokuda’s hui instead joined with the Opihi faction that made Kouchi president.

Baker now has one of the most powerful committees, arguably second only to Ways and Means, which Tokuda is chairing again this session. Ways and Means controls the overall state budget and bills with fiscal implications.

Sen. Jill Tokuda, right, speaks as Sen. Donna Mercado Kim listens, Jan. 26, 2015.
Sen. Jill Tokuda, right, speaks as Sen. Donna Mercado Kim listens, Jan. 26, 2015. Cory Lum/Civil beat

This broadened Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee is expected to hear a bill that proposes raising the general excise tax a half-percent to provide long-term assistance to the elderly as well as examine ways to reduce health care costs among other issues.

There are several dozen bills carried over from last session that will be pending in Baker’s committee, ranging from the health impacts of pesticides to campaign finance reform.

Kouchi said when the Senate reorganized, the governor had not said yet that he would be disbanding the Health Connector, Hawaii’s insurance marketplace, an issue Baker fully understood. He also noted her experience in forming a public-private partnership to run a state hospital on Maui, a deal the Legislature authorized last session.

Kouchi and the new Senate leaders made a similar decision with Agriculture. Instead of leaving it as its own committee, they merged it with the Water and Land Committee. They made Sen. Mike Gabbard the chair, pulling him from head of the Energy Committee, which had been a major focus area for him.

That move simultaneously cut out two Kim supporters — Ruderman, who had headed Agriculture, and Thielen, who had chaired Water and Land.

Chair Committee water and land Senator Laura Thielen during recommendation hearing on appointees. 15 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sen. Laura Thielen, right, speaks during an April 2015 hearing as Sen. Gil Riviere listens. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Thielen is the former director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and has developed an expertise in land and water issues.

She was in the spotlight last session for opposing Ige’s nomination of Carleton Ching, a lobbyist for a major developer, to head the DLNR. The nomination was withdrawn after it became clear that support for the confirmation wasn’t there.

Ruderman owns a chain of successful organic grocery stores on the Big Island and is a longtime advocate of producing more locally grown food, which has been identified as a state priority.

He also supports labeling genetically modified food, something Kouchi has opposed. Political observers suspect that’s part of the reason Kouchi is supporting Hawaii County Councilman Greggor Ilagan in his bid to unseat Ruderman in the Democratic primary in August.

Half the Senate is up for election this year, along with the entire House. It can be harder to demonstrate what you’ve done for your district when you don’t chair a committee. You can be left just introducing bills that may never get a hearing instead of serving in a position that can move them forward.

Sen. Josh Green, left, talk to Sens. Russell Ruderman, center, and Mike Gabbard during a floor session in 2015.
Sen. Josh Green, left, talk to Sens. Russell Ruderman, center, and Mike Gabbard during a floor session in 2015. Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Kouchi said he wanted Gabbard as chair because he was less polarizing than Ruderman and Sen. Clarence Nishihara, the previous Agriculture chair who is a friend of the biotech industry.

While Gabbard is more left of center — he’s introduced GMO-labeling bills, supports industrial hemp and wants stricter pesticide rules — Kouchi considers him more approachable and someone who may be better suited to working with both sides on an issue.

“Clearly, I think the public feels they will have a fair discussion of all agriculture bills with Sen. Gabbard,” Kouchi said.

He noted that Water and Land had been consolidated with Agriculture in the past, and that there’s a natural nexus among those issues.

Tokuda served on this “super committee,” which also included Hawaiian Affairs, during her first session in 2007. She said it was huge but offered an opportunity to see how all the issues connect.

The committee later split, with Tokuda taking Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs, and Sen. Clayton Hee taking Water and Land. Hawaiian Affairs and Agriculture then became their own committees.

Senator Suzanne Chun Oakland member of the ways and means committee. REIT. 18 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland makes a point during a hearing last February. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

When it comes to housing issues, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, another member of the Chess Club faction that supported Kim, lost her position as chair.

Chun Oakland has fought for years for affordable housing solutions and ways to combat homelessness as chair of the combined Housing and Human Services Committee, and her colleagues say there is arguably no one more qualified to steer such a committee.

Under the new lineup, she will only chair Human Services; Breene Harimoto, a first-term senator, will chair Housing as a separate committee.

Much as lawmakers say there’s value in combining some committees, they say it can also be good to separate them so each issue receives the proper amount of attention.

Sen. Roz Baker gestures during a hearing in April.
Sen. Roz Baker gestures during a hearing in April. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tokuda said she expects Chun Oakland to continue to champion the issues she’s most passionate about regardless of the committee change.

She added that Harimoto brings experience from the county level as a former Honolulu City Councilman who is “absolutely no stranger” to housing issues.

“It’s exciting to see how these changes can lend themselves to new opportunities and new ideas,” Tokuda said.

Political observers and lawmakers said privately that there is a compelling argument that a few lawmakers are being robbed of power for not falling in line with the change in leadership, and that some chairs may lack the expertise of their predecessors.

But they also said lawmakers can become experts in new subject areas if given the chance, and could be more effective at moving the legislation forward.

The bigger issue to most of those interviewed for this story was how the consolidation of some committees will play out.

When asked about these concerns, Kouchi said, “We’re trying to focus on the job going forward.”

Tokuda said for the most part, the major committees are relatively unchanged, and that will provide a good base of stability.

She expects “a different tone and a positive tone” this session.

“It’s very promising in terms of what we have the opportunity to do,” Tokuda said.

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