Todd Simmons: Aloha and welcome to another episode of the Pod Squad. I’m Todd Simmons, opinion editor for Honolulu Civil Beat. I’m filling in today for Chad Blair because joining me as guest for this episode – our Civil Beat reporter and “second banana,” Chad Blair. Welcome Chad, thanks for the mic.
Chad Blair: Todd, it’s great to see you on lead mic. I don’t actually have to talk today do I?
Simmons: That’s enough, I was just introducing you that’s it.
As well as Civil Beat reporter Nathan Eagle, welcome Nathan.
Nathan Eagle: Hey, how’s it going?
Simmons: Both Chad and Nathan provided primary coverage this year for nearly four months of the legislative session — from opening day, to endless committee meetings, to sine die.
So let’s talk about it, guys, in terms of what happened behind the scenes this year that wouldn’t really be reflected in the daily news coverage that people see every day. You guys have been reporting there now for years, so for each of you what was the most interesting thing that went on behind the scenes?
Blair: Well of course you don’t know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes unless you talk to people because they don’t want you to know. I’ll give you an example, conference committee.
Eagle: Well, it’s behind the scenes …
Blair: It’s behind the scenes. It’s a very strange way I think to deal with this critical legislation that hasn’t passed up until these last two weeks of session — the last two weeks of April basically. What you’ll see is this very strange situation where the lead conferees on a bill will show up and say, “Well, I don’t have sign offs from FIN yet,” meaning House Finance, or “I don’t have sign offs from WAM (Ways and Means). You want to roll this over until Thursday at 1:30, or how about Thursday at 2:00?”
And watching all of that are not only me and Nathan, but all these lobbyists, all these people who have vested interest in these bills passing, and they’re being herded like cattle. We have no idea what’s going on unless we can actually get a hold of a lawmaker to tell us. And even then, sometimes they don’t even know because the decisions are being made ultimately by the House and Senate leadership. It’s almost like they’re marionette puppets. What’s most frustrating is almost so much dies in those last two days. You’ll see people who have been there for hours and hours and hours suddenly finding out their legislation is dead.
Simmons: Except for the cigars and cigarettes, it’s the proverbial smoking back room right?
Eagle: It is. And it kind of backs up and backs up. It starts off as a slow burn in the morning and by the late afternoon it starts getting into a frenzy. We’ve got lawmakers running from one conference room to another. I’ve observed a couple at least who would pop their head in and say, “Aye … what did I just vote on?”
Blair: You know in the old days there was no deadline at 6 p.m. They would go to midnight and sometimes even to Saturday. In recent years they have tried to cap that, so now what you’ll hear is, “Well, we just ran out of time.” I think that’s BS. I think they know exactly what bills are going to make it and which ones are not. Yes, there are individual lawmakers that are often surprised that their particular bill did not make the cut, but it seems a cruel way I think to treat the public.
Simmons: Sure, and that’s of course the backroom drama, but there were other dynamics that played out very much in public. I think none more public than in the minority party. There were incidents surrounding Bob McDermott and Gene Ward in the House, and several involving Sam Slom in the Senate.
Eagle: Absolutely. We had Rep. Ward time and time again standing up speaking at length, fellow members yielding their time (well, not McDermott at least in one instance when it came to a Hawaiian Home Lands discussion) and you could just see it on the faces of House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, House Speaker Joe Souki — they’re really really upset to the point where the speaker is calling on House Vice Speaker John Mizuno, “Hey, call this guy out of order, get him off the floor.” They’ll take a recess, work things out, but it got pretty tense with that.
Simmons: But at least Ward kept things clean. What about our friend McDermott, he had some choice words for his own colleges at the GOP.
Blair: He said, do your frickin’ job — and he didn’t use the word frickin — and it was caught live. Later I saw Bob come to one of the committee hearings and he’s sitting with Democrats, and they joked with him about “pulling a McDermott.” Pulling a McDermott means to use the f-bomb on the floor. Of course Bob has been colorful in other ways.
I will just point out that Gene Ward, on the very last day of session, just as they were gaveling-out, he says something to the effect of, “Well Speaker Souki, I wonder if you are going to be seeking legal council during the interim,” because he expects to be sued over Hawaiian Home Lands. Immediately Saiki and Souki gavel-out, they go over there and huddle with him and Beth Fukumoto Chang — just bizarre.
Eagle: A far cry from after that was seeing Rep. Ward cruising around on his Segway in the rotunda afterwards. So he’s cooled down and switching back into campaign mode.
Simmons: What about our friend Sen. Slom, is he okay these days? Is he expected back for next year’s session?
Blair: You know he’s got a challenger in Stanley Ching the former councilman. Sam has been returned election after election from his Hawaii Kai district. He’s very popular even though he is among the minority (the lone Republican). It’s’ disconcerting to see him escorted from the floor in an ambulance. Josh Green, a medical doctor actually tended to him at one point. He ends up getting coronary bypass surgery.
I did talk to someone on his staff who said, “You know, these days that’s like getting your tonsils taken out.” It’s become almost routine. But he did look drawn and wane and was brought in on a wheelchair on the final days of the session, and you just feel for the guy. The session started after all with the death of Sen. Gil Kahele, whose son now succeeds him.
Eagle: It was a very tough session, especially on the Senate side for that. It opened with Senate President (Ronald) Kouchi taking about Sen. Breene Harimoto and his struggles, and really looking at him as a man of strength and embodying the way we should do that. The president brought that up again at the end of session — “Hey, we’ve been through a lot, deaths of parents, deaths of in-laws” — it’s been a tough one for him on a very personal.
Blair: Despite their differences there, they clearly are like family.
Simmons: And we certainly wish our best to Sen. Slom and for his full recovery from all this.
Nathan, these past two sessions you’ve developed a real following for something that is very interior in the Legislature — the factions that kind of dominate both the House and Senate. How do those alliances work in practice. Your piece on the House alliances, the House factions, really got a lot of readership and traffic over the past few weeks. How do they work in real time?
Eagle: It starts with fun names, I think that’s what draws some readers in. You’ve got the Fab Four, you’ve got the Three Amigos, the Dissidents — they work by grouping for strength. Let’s get this bills through. How do you do that? You form factions and factions then in turn determine leadership, leadership sets the agenda for the entire session.
There’s a lot of moving parts, there were internal struggles I think within the factions. Some of the bills like the Maui Water Rights bill raised some personal questions for folks like, do I vote with my faction? Someone like Rep. Jarrett Keohokalole, who’s Hawaiian – or do I vote with Native Hawaiians on this. It’s a struggle.
Simmons: Speaking of the Maui Water bill (House Bill 2501), there really wasn’t a more contentious issue this session than that one. I know we’ve had big drama around things like marriage equality in previous sessions, that one got a special session all it’s own. What was it like this year as the two sides squared off on that one, Chad?
Blair: What I thought was hilarious is that lawmakers somehow pretended that A&B (Alexander & Baldwin) and all their donations didn’t have something to do with getting A&B to have this bill written in such a way that allows them to work around a court ruling. They have been diverting water from East Maui illegally for 15 years. They’ve had water control since the 19th century, it’s long and complicated.
I have to share something, I did put this on the site; Joe Souki had a press conference on the last day of session and we all showed up. I got there a little early and he’s like, “Would you like some coffee?” And I said, “I appreciate that Speaker, but is the coffee from Alexander & Baldwin?”
He goes, “Well I don’t think the coffee is, but maybe the sugar.”
We both broke out laughing as well as who else was there, so you can make fun of this. On the other hand, there are taro farmers and Native Hawaiians in East Maui that won’t find that funny at all.
This is clearly about a very powerful organization being able to get their way, and mind you, they do have some concerns. They are in serious trouble now that sugar cane is going out of business and they want to survive as a company with diversified agriculture.
Simmons: Sure of course, and one of the other points of progress this session was the passage of the industrial hemp pilot program that could grant A&B another cash crop to develop and transition over.
But having said all of that on the water bill, this was a session of relatively little drama. No big disputes between the executive and legislative branches. In the final week of the session the governor gave the Legislature a grade of “B” for this session. Looking at the governor’s performance last year to this, his second full session as governor, how did he do?
Eagle: That grade actually sounds pretty good to me – for him. I think a lot of that speaks to his decades of experience as a state senator before becoming governor. He’s very familiar with the process. He wasn’t just any state senator either, his last years he was controlling the Ways and Means committee, the state budget, so he knows the inner workings, he knows the factions, he knows how to get things done. It seemed also there was a pretty good communication between his administration, the department heads and the state lawmakers that are making the decisions. They didn’t by any means get everything they wanted, in some cases not even close, but all in all it’s fairly good.
Blair: He got a lot. In fact one senator told me, “you know, I think David Ige even just wrote the budget himself.” Which he probably did, he submits it, and then WAM and FIN go through it in their own way.
I will say this, there was a bit of a learning curve. Something does change when you go from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floor up the 5th floor. You didn’t have a major blunder like the Carleton Ching nomination, that was clearly a mistake last session, the governor did learn from that experience. You didn’t have any single confirmation rising to the level of controversy.
I think he’s worked very hard. He’s got a very different personality than Neil Abercrombie, himself a former legislator that was elevated to the executive (well we saw how that worked out.) I think they are learning that they can work with Ige and Ige can work with them, and there was a lot of camaraderie, you sensed that they were really working together.
Eagle: Yeah, I think he was probably very happy to be out of conference rooms. Actually, I never saw him in a conference room, I saw him in the hallway a couple of times. I’ve seen Neil Abercrombie in a conference room once and that was the extent of it.
Blair: Yeah, there was concern that Abercrombie didn’t really reach out and work more closely with the legislature.
Simmons: Guys, so many readers of Civil Beat come here for exactly the expertise you’re sharing today, so on behalf of all of them, thanks for all the late nights and long hours this session, and doing what you do so well. And thanks for being on the Pod Squad today.
Visit us on CivilBeat.com and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. For the Pod Squad and Honolulu Civil Beat, I’m Todd Simmons. Thanks for listening. Take care and aloha.