The Hawaii state Senate may — or may not — vote on the most talked-about bill of the 2019 session Tuesday when it gathers for a floor session at 10 a.m.

As of late Monday, the betting was that House Bill 1326 — which would allow the fabled former Big Five company Alexander & Baldwin, small ranches, farmers and utilities to continue to hold stream water diversion rights for another seven years — would not be heard Tuesday.

For one thing, everybody at the Capitol and a lot of folks outside are talking about it.

Among the rumors: Senate bills might be held hostage by the House if the measure that started in the House is not passed by the Senate; the confirmation of one or more Ige administration nominees may be imperiled by legislative horse-trading; and coveted capital improvement projects — that is, money for things in lawmakers’ districts — are being leveraged.

Officially, the Senate leadership is not talking. The 24 Democrats spent much of the day in caucus, where about 260 bills are being considered for passage Tuesday and Thursday.

House leadership isn’t saying much either, although House Speaker Scott Saiki did issue this statement Tuesday morning in response to reports that representatives might be trying to sway senators:

The report that the House leadership is pressuring the Senate to advance HB 1326 during its floor session is not true. At this point, it is entirely up to the Senate leadership to determine how it wants to proceed. Whatever the leadership decides, it is important that the Legislature be civil and reasoned, rather than divisive.

This much is certain: The Senate needs just nine votes to pull HB 1326 from the Water and Land and Ways and Means committees, where the measure was killed in dramatic fashion last Thursday.

It would take some arm-twisting and rule-bending, but it is possible. What if, say, the bill to establish an airport corporation received fresh support from the legislators who have helped kill it the last two years in a row?

Alexander Baldwin Chris Benjamin and right, Senator Kalani English share a moment after press conference. HB2501. maui water. 20 april 2016
Alexander & Baldwin CEO Chris Benjamin, left, and Senator Majority Leader J. Kalani English share a moment after a press conference in 2016 to announce the most-recent agreement to extend water diversion rights. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It also takes just 13 votes to pass the last version of HB 1326 — the House Draft 2 that has Finance Chair Sylvia Luke’s blessing — and send it straight to Gov. David Ige. Some neighbor island senators are especially keen on helping the people in their district affected by the legislation.

If the Senate does not do this Tuesday, it can still do it later this week and anytime it holds a floor session right up until April 30. The session is scheduled to end two days later.

Supporters of the bill don’t want to see it to go to conference committee, or to have the House vote on it again. They just want the measure passed.

There are also bruised feelings among lawmakers. Some are hailing Sen. Kai Kahele, who proposed carving A&B out of the bill, as a hero to farmers, ranchers, some Native Hawaiian groups and environmentalists. Others see him as grandstanding, not a team player and with his mind already focused on running for Congress.

Senator Kai Kahele before lunch break. 2 may 2017
Sen. Kai Kahele’s move to cut A&B from the water rights bill resulted in its dying Thursday — but will it be resurrected? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While it is difficult to dust fingerprints on why certain bills die, I can tell you that two bills authored by Kahele regarding the makeup of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents were recommitted to House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke’s committee Friday, one day after the same committee passed it. That effectively keeps the bill from going to conference committee for further consideration.

Another Kahele bill, this one establishing a Statewide Sustainability Division within the Office of Planning, is now headed to conference committee because the House and Senate can’t agree on how it’s written.

All this happened the day after the water bill drowned.

People are also grumbling about potential conflicts of interest for certain lawmakers — you know, so-and-so’s uncle or cousin or whomever that is working for you-know-who.

Finance Chair Sylvia Luke questions mayors in joint WAM Finance Meeting.
Finance Chair Sylvia Luke at a budget hearing with her Senate colleague, Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz, center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HB 1326 is complicated. Water management is complicated. How the Legislature works is complicated. But the right to divert public water for private purposes is important.

A&B has been diverting water for decades, from East Maui where taro farmers complain they are being robbed and to Central Maui where A&B no longer farms sugarcane but where the company sold land to a company called Mahi Pono.

Critics including the Sierra Club charge that the A&B stands to lose $62 million if the water does not continue to flow, while A&B calls that a “red herring” and contends that rejection of the bill would harm the future of diversified agriculture.

Finally, there is this: A&B’s political action committee gave $111,350 to state and county officials during the last two election cycles.

A&B executives also donated $80,225. CEO Christopher Benjamin gave $37,500. Stanley Kuriyama, the chair of the board of directors and a former CEO, gave $86,875.

Now, why do you think they gave money to politicians? Because they admire their campaign platforms?

Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this story.

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