Chad Blair: A Conversation With House Speaker Scott Saiki - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


On Jan. 19, the opening day of the 2022 Hawaii Legislature, the speaker of the Hawaii House of Representatives had justice on his mind — economic, cultural and environmental.

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In his speech that day, delivered to a House chamber that was still off limits to the public due to Covid-19, Scott Saiki recalled the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he spoke to Hawaii lawmakers in September 1959, one month after statehood.

The civil rights martyr spoke of his work in other states and recognized Hawaii as a “noble example” in the area of racial harmony and racial justice, Saiki said as he stood at the House lectern.

“It has been 62 years since that speech. As you know, Dr. King’s teachings extended beyond race, and included economic and environmental justice. It is time to reassess Dr. King’s observation about Hawaii and to articulate what we can do to advance his call for justice.”

Saiki then identified three legislative priorities for the session: an $18 minimum wage along with a permanent and refundable earned income tax credit, $600 million to help beneficiaries of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, and a new management structure for Mauna Kea.

None of the legislative ideas were assured passage, and the latter two represented longstanding controversial issues that had eluded solution.

And, while the state was beginning to enjoy a tax revenue rebound, thanks to the return of tourists after a two-year pandemic lull, Gov. David Ige wanted to put the $1 billion in excess money in the state’s “rainy day” budget reserve fund to prepare for the next economic downturn.

Living Wage supporters rally at the Capitol Rotunda.
Living wage supporters rallied at the Capitol Rotunda in March. The Legislature agreed to an $18 hourly wage by 2028. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But Saiki, Senate President Ron Kouchi and the chairs of the House and Senate money committees had other ideas. Tax revenue projections grew as the session progressed, and the state’s general fund benefited as well from the federal Covid stimulus package funds.

By the end of April, as House and Senate conferees tried to hash out their differences on hundreds of bills, the wage increase and EITC, the DHHL deal and the plan for the mauna were still not settled.

But Saiki, sitting in the conference room of his fourth-floor office at the Capitol on Thursday hours after the session wrapped, said he was never in doubt about the eventual outcome. All three proposals from his opening-day remarks were passed in the last days of session and sent to the governor for his consideration.

The headlines have been glowing, with words like “historic,” “landmark” and “breakthrough” being used to describe the Legislature’s accomplishments.

But Saiki has another word for what happened.

“I think, going forward, that the Legislature was transformed this year,” he said, adding that the work could serve as a model for future sessions.

I’ve been covering the Legislature for a long time. I am not quite sure the word “transformed” describes what transpired, because that suggests it might be a permanent shift. There are too many unpredictable variables that could easily alter the trajectory of the Legislature in future years.

But it was truly a historic session in terms of the Native Hawaiian legislation. Even the Office of Hawaiian Affairs received more money than expected. If the 2022 session shows how the two chambers can work better together in the interests of the public, then it is instructive to learn more on how it all came together.

A Full Session

Had there not been a giant surplus, of course, all this might be moot. Little happened over the previous two years, when Covid forced truncated legislative sessions.

And because of the decennial reapportionment this year, all 76 seats in the Legislature are up this fall. Every senator and representative facing voters will be able to point to real accomplishments this year.

Saiki himself is likely to face the same opponent who came within 167 votes in the 2020 Democratic primary of short-circuiting his political career. Drive around the McCully, Kaheka and Kakaako neighborhood that makes up House District 26 and you will see campaign signs for Saiki and Kim Coco Iwamoto.

There is also the big question mark of what Gov. David Ige will do with all the bills on his desk. He has until late June to tell legislators whether he plans to veto anything. Saiki, an attorney, used an attorney’s word when asked if the Legislature might return in July for a veto override session.

“That’s speculative,” he said.

Sign located along the Mauna Kea Access Road near the Saddle Road intersection in opposition to the TMT telescope.
The Mauna Kea management restructuring bill awaits the governor’s attention. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The bill that has attracted the most opposition is the Mauna Kea management restructuring. While the University of Hawaii appears to have accepted losing stewardship of the state’s largest mountain after a five-year transition period to an 11-member independent authority, the Department of Land and Natural Resources — the landowner — is not going down without a fight.

On Thursday, DLNR issued a bullet-point press release that called the bill “well-intentioned” but could actually result in worse management of the mauna, threatening natural and cultural resources.

“In short, the DLNR believes that HB2024 CD1 opens Mauna Kea to further development and commercial use without the regulatory oversight that applies to all other lands in Hawaii,” the release stated, reference to the final conference draft of the measure.

Asked about DLNR’s objections, Saiki shrugged them off. He has had conversations with Ige about the legislation, and he feels optimistic that House Bill 2024 will become law.

“The governor understands that something that the status quo is like is not acceptable,” said Saiki. “He understands.”

By “status quo,” Saiki is referring to the standstill over the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of Mauna Kea, perhaps the world’s premier location for astronomy. The $1.4 billion project has been in limbo since Native Hawaiians and others succeeded in blocking construction in 2019.

It was Saiki that proposed a working group to examine removing UH management.

“Mauna Kea is a manifestation of what happens when we draw lines, work in silos and disregard different views,” Saiki said during in a floor speech at the Capitol in 2021. By December, a working group led by House lawmakers proposed creating a new governing entity. This past Tuesday, the Senate passed HB 2024 22-3 while only two members in the 51-member House opposed it.

Giving Credit Where Due

Saiki is quick to credit others for the 2022 banner session. The Senate also called for a minimum wage increase, and its version was the first to be scheduled for a hearing. Kouchi also said the increase would likely be tied to the earned income tax credit, too.

And it was in January of 2020 that Kouchi, Saiki and Ige along with others led a press conference in which they proposed a wage hike to $13 along with other initiatives such as more funds for affordable housing and an expansion of affordable pre-school programs to all kids. The so-called “joint package” was a rare instance of the two branches of government showing a united front on state priorities. But then came Covid two months later.

But Saiki said he never forgot about the desire to increase the wage, which has been stalled at $10.10 an hour for years. In December he said the national AFL-CIO sent him a letter calling for an $18 hourly wage.

Representative Sylvia Luke speaks during floor session honoring some lawmakers that were leaving office.
Rep. Sylvia Luke on Thursday honored lawmakers that were leaving office. They include her, leaving Saiki without a close colleague should he be reelected. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Meanwhile, Saiki had developed relationships with members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness. They included Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, and Sheryl Matsuoka, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association.

“I spent time doing Zoom meetings with the Restaurant Association, the Retail Merchants and other business groups to get input on that,” he said. “And I just felt like it should be $18.”

Why not then go with the Senate version of the wage hike, which would have increased it two years earlier that the House version?

“I think from the House perspective, I think that we were very focused on the minimum wage issue, and we were very committed to our position and how it should be adjusted along with the earned income tax credit,” said Saiki.

If there are any lingering resentments on who deserves credit, Kouchi isn’t showing it. He gave the session a letter grade of “A” and said, “I’ve never achieved every single bill I’ve talked about before.”

A bill championed by Kouchi requiring the Department of Education to provide menstrual products free of charge to all students on all public school campuses also passed on the last day of session.

Saiki also credits lawmakers in the opposite chamber. He singled out state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who was appointed as a conferee on the Mauna Kea bill.

Kim has been a consistent critic of UH, and Saiki said her area of interest was not Mauna Kea. But she may have saved the management structure bill.

“She was a quick study,” he said. “She had to learn and conceptualize this within a matter of weeks. When the House bill went over to her, she basically had a couple of weeks to figure out how to draft a Senate proposal, which she moved out of her committee. So, yeah, got to give a lot of credit to Donna because she just really did a really good job.”

As for the DHHL funding, Saiki told Rep. Sylvia Luke, his close colleague and chair of the House Finance Committee, to set aside the $600 million. The bill was so new that its first draft offered few details other than the dollar figure — itself an unusual development, as dollar figures are often left intentionally blank until the budget is settled late in session.

By the time of the final draft, however, House Bill 2511 specified that DHHL must pursue “a multi-pronged approach” and develop a strategic plan to address applicant preferences.

Speaker Scott Saiki stands at the back of the room during joing House and Senate budget conference committee meeting held at the Capitol.
Speaker Scott Saiki during a joint House and Senate budget conference committee meeting in April. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

What Saiki did not talk about on opening day was his idea for a settlement with Hawaiian beneficiaries over a decades-old lawsuit alleging DHHL mismanaged the public land trust. Named for the lead plaintiff, Leona Kalima, the $328 million agreement also passed last week.

In Kalima, Saiki took on a greater role. He contacted Hawaii Attorney General Holly Shikada about the status of the case. While the budget surplus made it easier to find an agreeable dollar amount, Saiki was worried that trying to settle the claims for the more than 2,700 Hawaiian beneficiaries who were plaintiffs to the lawsuit would take years.

“That would have been a drawn-out process,” he said, and one probably far more costly to the state.

If Saiki is reelected, he’d like to continue with the transformation of the Legislature, assuming his colleagues also reelect him speaker. But it will be without Luke, who is leaving to run for lieutenant governor.

As much as the 2022 session was a hit, Hawaii has a host of problems, not the least the high cost of living. There will also be new legislators in office and the power struggles that have defined past legislatures will never disappear.

As with opening day, Saiki recalled Martin Luther King in his closing-day speech: “His call for justice — cultural justice, environmental justice, and economic justice — resonates today. But your work has met Dr. King’s call in a significant way. The bottom line is this: You have shifted the arc of justice in Hawaii.”


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

So Representative Saiki, who knew fully well that there would be a rematch between him and Iwamoto, made sure that the major checkboxes that was the backbone of her campaign, he checked off. This is interesting that he did this being that his district is much more a political moderate area than it is progressive. Now lets see if the voters of the area give him another chance, or somehow are convinced that Iwamoto is a better fit for an area that, really, has not changed much in the political philosophical area.

Kana_Hawaii · 6 days ago

The minimum wage increase was woefully inadequate to lift people out of poverty, as were the amounts settled on with the union contracts. Great for a campaign year, but not real change.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 1 week ago

I am concerned about the effect that raining the minimum wage to $18 would have on our kupuna. I am retired and I know that raising the minimum wage would inevitably cause a rise in inflation that would economically hurt residents that are on fixed incomes. You can raise the minimum wage, then raise prices for goods but there is no way to raise the incomes of senior citizens that are just getting by. Yes, we need to raise the minimum wage but raising to $18 is just too drastic and irresponsible.

Westocohfd · 1 week ago

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