I’ve heard it from lots of folks: The just completed 2017 session of the Hawaii Legislature was the worst in recent memory.
Dozens of significant bills, including ones that could alter the state’s landscape, fell by the wayside: voting by mail, decriminalization of pakalolo, lifeguard immunity, medical aid in dying, red-light cameras, vacation rental revenues, pesticide disclosure, banning smoking in vehicles, taxes to help teachers, paid sick leave, day-care inspections, body cameras for cops.
Instead, we will remember the session for one thing only: the failure to agree on how to pay for Honolulu’s troubled rail project.
There may yet be a special session to hammer out a financing solution. For now, though, here are my choices for the winners and losers in a session dominated by the epic failure to pass a rail financing bill, with an eye on political futures.
Kirk Caldwell. The Honolulu mayor deserves credit for his tenacious quest to convince lawmakers to allow Oahu to extend its general excise tax surcharge forever, or maybe until 2047, or just for 10 years, or whenever. He patiently explained to legislators why it was so important to complete the largest public works project in the state’s history, and withstood the humiliating barbs of the money chairs. But if rail stops at Middle Street or Aloha Tower rather than Ala Moana Center, he can kiss goodbye running for higher office.
Joe Souki. The former House speaker, dumped on the last day of session by his colleagues, pushed hard to get a rail tax extension passed, as well as the aid-in-dying measure. In the final, hectic days of session, I saw Speaker Joe walk past a media scrum with Reps. Sylvia Luke and Henry Aquino, soon to be joined by Speaker-In-Waiting Scott Saiki. The expression on Souki’s face was one of surprise and anguish, as if to say, “How come no one is interviewing me?”
House and Senate Leadership. That would be Ron Kouchi, Michelle Kidani, J. Kalani English and Brickwood Galuteria in the Senate, and Saiki, Luke, John Mizuno and Cindy Evans in the House. I understand that there were compelling reasons for why things happened or didn’t happen this year. But the art to passing legislation involves compromise, flexibility and persuasion. Those skills seemed in short supply this session. In the end, they blamed the failure to come up with a rail deal on Caldwell for not giving them satisfactory financial numbers.
The House Dissidents. Former supporters of Speaker Emeritus Calvin Say denounced the elevation of Saiki and the unseemly deposing of Souki. They included Reps. Marcus Oshiro (who resigned his post as House majority policy leader in protest) along with Jimmy Tokioka, Sharon Har and Say himself. It was ironic to see the former powers-that-be standing up for Souki, given that he was made speaker with the help of Saiki and Luke. It also illustrated how the current dissidents simply don’t have the numbers to take back control of the chamber.
David Ige. Hawaii’s governor is widely seen as being an uninspiring leader, and he is expected to get a primary challenger or two in 2018. Many also fault him for not getting involved in the rail tax dispute. But at the press conference the day before session ended, he sounded like Dad telling his wayward kids to go to their rooms for a time out. And he said he remained open to resolving the rail tax standoff, but insisted the House and Senate must first get their act together.
Jill Tokuda. Sure, she was booted as chairwoman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, a stinging rebuke. She sometimes also went overboard in her chastisement of Caldwell. But she stood her ground on the principle that the city did not deserve to get one more penny for rail, other than a return of the state’s surcharge skim to the city. And yes, I am quite aware that she voted in favor of the House version of the rail tax bill that called for using the hotel tax. But my guess is that her political prospects have brightened.
Kai Kahele. In the waning days of session, the Big Island senator emerged as a passionate, reasoned voice at the Legislature. He was not afraid to speak out on the collapsed rail deal, nor on the failure to fund research on rat lungworm disease. Appointed to fill the seat of his late father, Gil Kahele, Kai Kahele was easily elected in his own right and is a figure to watch.
The House GOP. The five Republicans in the House are a feisty bunch, and Reps. Gene Ward, Andria Tupola, Cynthia Thielen and Bob McDermott in particular got off a few good lines in discussing the rail tax bill and the removal of Souki as speaker. McDermott described the inability to fund rail a “travesty,” while Ward said the Legislature had put itself in “deep doo-doo.” Inelegant, perhaps, but not inaccurate.
I’m sure many will disagree with my picks of winners and losers. Please feel free to comment below, civilly, and share your own picks.
And, if there is indeed a special session and a rail tax bill is approved, the political prospects for many could change.
For now, though, most of what happened (or didn’t happen) in the the 2017 Legislature was a big disappointment.