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Hawaii State Senate committee assignments for the next two years announced earlier this month have several senators griping about the process.
Four senators agreed to talk about their concerns about Senate President Ron Kouchi’s leadership. They asked to speak anonymously because of concerns about working relationships.
They say that they were not asked which committees they wished to serve on, something they say has been the custom in recent sessions.
And some are serving on only three committees rather than four or five, as has sometimes been the case in the past.
And some senators don’t sit on any of the so-called A-bracket committees, such as Ways and Means, Judiciary, and Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health. These are the committees that see the lion’s share of legislation and carry the greatest influence.
Two freshmen senators, Jarrett Keohokalole and Sharon Moriwaki, were not assigned to WAM. Working directly on the budget is an ideal crash course in Legislating 101, which is why many Senate freshmen dating back to at least 2005 served stints on WAM.
And of all 16 committees, only two in the 2019-2020 biennial session have more than five members — WAM (12 members) and CPH (seven). Some committees that in the past have had as many as seven or nine members now have five, making it easier to reach a quorum — and to control votes.
This may all seem like palace intrigue or insider baseball to some readers (and it is a little of both), but it is also important.
Committee assignments impact the ability of senators to serve their constituents through proposing legislation and voting directly on bills. A perch on WAM means a senator has a say on the state budget. And every senator wants to make sure his district gets money for capital improvement projects.
Kouchi, now in his fourth year at the top of the Senate crab bucket, strongly disagrees anything is amiss in his chamber. Reached by phone last week, he acknowledged that he did not send a memo to members this fall asking them what committees they favored. But he denied that it was customary.
“Everyone does it their own way,” he said.
Kouchi dismissed as well the notion that all members usually serve on at least one A-bracket committee, and added it’s “absolutely untrue” that freshmen senators traditionally sit on WAM. He even provided an example: Stanley Chang in 2017.
I asked Kouchi about the appointment of Dru Kanuha as majority caucus leader and his placement on four committees, including the coveted WAM, even though it’s his first year. The president responded by telling me I had not done my homework because, if I had, I would know that former Sen. Shan Tsutsui had assumed the same leadership position his first year (in 2003) as well as Kouchi himself (in 2011).
“You don’t even bother looking up this stuff,” Kouchi said. “Allegations about special treatment are so far removed from being factually correct. There is no basis for truth.”
Kouchi said final committee assignments could change before the 2019 Legislature begins Jan. 16.
“Anything is possible before session,” he said.
Here’s another reality evident to anyone who has covered the Senate: There are only 25 seats, which means it takes just 13 to form a governing coalition.
The current leadership is much the same as it has been the last two years, too, with Kouchi on top along with Vice President Michelle Kidani, Majority Leader J. Kalani English and WAM Chair Donovan Dela Cruz. It’s primarily comprised of what might be called the Greater Opihi Faction (the saltwater limpets have tremendous sticking power). It was a variation of that faction that elevated Kouchi to the presidency in a May 2015 coup.
As with the state House of Representatives, whoever is in charge of the chamber calls the shots on who sits where. (Literally: Leadership makes office assignments, and not all offices at the Capitol are alike.) Kidani and English also sit on WAM.
Not everyone is grumbling.
“As far as committee assignments go, you are the first to tell me there is a problem of complaints,” said Kai Kahele, the majority floor leader. “And when I took a look at committee assignments and how it was structured, I don’t have a problem with it. It looks fair and balanced.”
Kahele, who sits on four committees including WAM, said he was not aware of customs or traditions regarding committees.
“When it comes down to it, everyone wants to serve on WAM, everyone wants to be in leadership,” said Kahele. “But there is only so many seats. You can’t have 25 senators on WAM.”
He added, “Not everyone gets what they want.”
Adding to the mix is the departure this year of influential senators like Josh Green, Will Espero, Brickwood Galuteria and Jill Tokuda. There is also a Republican, freshman Kurt Favella, after a two-year absence of the GOP.
The committee kerfuffle comes as things at the Legislature are heating up.
On Monday, Gov. David Ige released his two-year executive budget focused on the perennial problems of education, affordable housing and homelessness.
On Wednesday, WAM and Sen. Donna Mercado Kim’s Higher Education Committee are expected to grill University of Hawaii system officials on their budget and related matters.
A lawsuit from two good government advocacy groups is proceeding in 1st District Court. It challenges the Legislature’s practice of gutting and replacing the content of bills.
Finally, Ige is seeing more Cabinet members depart. The latest is Budget and Finance Director Laurel Johnston, whose last day is Dec. 31.
Ige’s top Cabinet members must obtain Senate confirmation for his second term. I’m hearing it could be a bumpy ride for some.
It’s a critical time for our community as we all try to navigate unprecedented disruptions to our daily lives.
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