An all-too familiar blue wave washed over Hawaii again this election, leaving Democrats overwhelmingly in control of the Legislature. The wave brought a dozen new faces but leadership and power structures will remain the same.

Seven true freshmen are entering the House, plus two former state lawmakers and one member who had only served since being appointed at the end of last session.

And four new members are joining the Senate, including one lawmaker who’s coming over from the House after winning Nov. 6.

The state House will see about a dozen new faces but won’t be changing who’s calling the shots. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

The underlying power structures in each chamber are expected to stay the same though.

Speaker Scott Saiki will remain at the helm in the House, with Finance Chair Sylvia Luke controlling the overall state budget and any bill with a money component.

The House is expanding its leadership positions to 14 from 11, Saiki said, in order to be more inclusive of women and neighbor islanders. It’s also more representative of the ranks in seniority. There will be nine majority whips, comprised of sophomore, junior and senior members.

“This is a really good class,” Saiki said, noting its diversity and maturity. “They seem very eager to start working.”

The House has reduced its overall number of committees by two, consolidating those chaired by Reps. Matt LoPresti and Kaniela Ing, who lost their bids for state Senate and Congress, respectively.

Rep Sylvia Luke speaks to Rep Saiki before session gaveled in. House floor. 11 april 2017
House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Speaker Scott Saiki will retain their top roles heading into the 2019 session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Of the 17 House committees, the most notable change is that Rep. Chris Lee will become chair of Judiciary. He previously chaired the Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, which Rep. Nicole Lowen will take over.

Lee will determine which bills to hear from the thousands that must pass through the Judiciary Committee before a final vote by the whole chamber. In the past, those measures have involved marijuana dispensaries, medical aid in dying, gun control, election reform, lobbying, government transparency, lotteries, gender rights and wildlife protection, among others.  

He’ll be taking the reins from Rep. Scott Nishimoto, who agreed to chair Judiciary for two years but did not intend to keep the post long term. He won’t be chairing a different committee next session, which begins in January, but will be overseeing the grants-in-aid process as a Finance Committee member, Saiki said.

During the last session, which wrapped up in May, the Legislature doled out $30 million in grants to more than 120 nonprofits. The process is decided almost entirely behind closed doors, leaving a lot of discretion to the House and Senate lawmakers in charge of it.

The House has also broken up its Health and Human Services Committee, which was chaired by Rep. John Mizuno. Next session, Mizuno will chair the Health Committee, and Rep. Joy San Buenaventura will chair the newly named Human Services and Homelessness Committee.

Oxybenzone Hearing Capitol Chair Rep Chris Lee listens to lively testimony. 31 jan 2017
Rep. Chris Lee will be heading the Judiciary Committee next session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The House took the opposite approach with education, consolidating the Higher Education and Education committees, which were chaired by Reps. Angus McKelvey and Justin Woodson, respectively. Woodson will chair the Education Committee and McKelvey will chair the Economic Development and Business Committee, which Rep. Cindy Evans had chaired. She lost her bid for another two-year term.

Saiki said it made sense to combine the two education committees because there’s a strong “inter-relationship” between them. It will be done as a two-year trial, he added.

As an overarching topic, Saiki said lawmakers should spend the next year examining state finances, especially within the Department of Education.

“It’s important to examine that question before we commit to provide additional funding,” he said, noting the failed effort to have voters decide if the state should tax investment properties to boost education funding.

The Supreme Court invalidated the proposed constitutional amendment, but Saiki said one of the positive effects was it brought more awareness to financing at the DOE and it brought others to the table, such as business leaders, who can help identify solutions. He encouraged opponents of the measure to share their ideas, too.

Rep. Richard Creagan will continue as Agriculture chair, Rep. Roy Takumi will stay with Consumer Protection and Commerce, Rep. Henry Aquino will still head Transportation, Rep. Takashi Ohno will remain Intrastate Commerce chair, Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson will continue with Labor and Public Employment, and Rep. Tom Brower will keep Housing.

Rep Gene Ward asks questions during joint Ways and Means and Finance committees. Capitol Auditorium 5 jan 2017
GOP Rep. Gene Ward will serve as minority leader next session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rep. Ty Cullen will take over as chair of Legislative Management for Rep. Bert Kobayashi. Rep. Gregg Takayama’s Public Safety Committee will now also include Veterans and Military Affairs, which LoPresti had managed. Rep. Richard Onishi’s Tourism Committee will also be broadened to include International Affairs.

And Rep. Ryan Yamane will chair the Water, Land and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, the latter subject matter being added this year from a committee Ing had led.

The majority caucus met Wednesday. Majority Leader Della Au Belatti told the caucus that she was beginning to put together the majority caucus package of bills — the House’s priority for the next session — and was seeking input from members, Saiki said.

The 51-member House still has five Republicans, albeit with one new face.

Rep. Andria Tupola gave up her westside Oahu seat for an what turned out to be an unsuccessful run for governor, and Democrat Staceylynn Eli won the race to replace her.

But Republicans picked up a seat in Mililani to fill the seat left vacant by Republican-turned-Democrat Rep. Beth Fukumoto, who lost her bid for Congress. Rep. Val Okimoto will be the newest member of the minority caucus.

The minority caucus reorganized last week, installing Rep. Gene Ward as minority leader and Rep. Lauren Matsumoto as minority floor leader.

“Our caucus is very excited for this session,” Ward said in a statement. “For years, our state has faced issues such as affordable housing, homelessness and high cost of living.”

Senate Now Includes A Lone Republican

The Senate is expected to announce its reorganization plan any day now. But lawmakers and other sources, speaking on background, said the main leadership structure will stay in place.

President Ron Kouchi is expected to still preside over the chamber, with Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz overseeing virtually all fiscal measures.

A couple of key committees will likely have new leaders though. 

Sen Karl Rhoads questions HTA director Szigeti about the HTA’s stand on environmental sustainabiliity and the breakdown of 2017 spending that 1/2 of their budget, $50 million dollars went to advertising in Asia. HTA total budget about $82 million.
Sen. Karl Rhoads is expected to chair the Judiciary Committee next session, which begins in January. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Karl Rhoads is expected to serve as Judiciary Committee chair, taking over for Sen. Brian Taniguchi, who will chair the Labor Committee that Sen. Jill Tokuda had overseen until she left to run — unsuccessfully as it turned out — for lieutenant governor.

Sen. Russell Ruderman is expected to serve as chair of the Human Services Committee, which Sen. Josh Green had led until his successful run for LG.

Sen. Donna Kim, who had chaired Government Operations, is expected to instead chair Higher Education. The former Senate president has a long history of holding the University of Hawaii accountable, including holding a series of investigative hearings several years ago.

Sen. Kai Kahele, who had chaired Higher Education, will be taking Rhoads’ spot as chair of the Water and Land Committee.

The Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee — which shepherds hundreds of bills each session — is to stay under Sen. Roz Baker’s leadership.

Senate President Ron Kouchi, right, and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz will continue to steer the chamber. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Sen. Stanley Chang will lead the Housing Committee, his first chairmanship position. Sen. Will Espero had chaired the committee but stepped down to run for LG, a race he lost.

Kouchi said Thursday that Senate leaders were still in the process of ironing out the committee assignments, but that they would be announced soon.

He said the most interesting result of the election will be the addition of two millennials — Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, who left his House seat to run for Tokuda’s empty post, and Sen. Dru Kanuha, who had served on the Hawaii County Council. He filled Green’s empty seat.

“They are certainly younger than the members they replace,” Kouchi said. “They are going to bring a new, positive energy to the Senate, and I look forward to working with them.”

And the Senate is back to having one of its 25 members from the Grand Old Party. Republican Kurt Favella defeated Rep. Matt LoPresti for the seat. Senate leaders had campaigned on behalf of LoPresti’s primary opponent but appear to have stayed out of the general.

The single GOP seat is significant though, as it allows Favella to hire a small staff and produce an alternative budget for the Legislature to at least consider.

Sen. Sam Slom, who for years was the chamber’s lone Republican until Sen. Stanley Chang ousted him, produced an alternative budget each year and often spoke out on the Senate floor against bills. There was less public opposition to measures moving through the Legislature after he left, as those debates can happen behind closed doors when the majority caucus meets.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author