During the waning days of the 2022 legislative session, a bill to protect coffee — one of the state’s most valuable cash crops — was alive by a thread.

Sponsored by Rep. Nicole Lowen, a Big Island lawmaker who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, the original measure called for tightening labeling laws to ensure that coffee labeled as, say, Kona coffee, included at least 51% coffee grown there.

By the end of session the Senate had watered down Lowen’s bill to a measure calling for a study. And with House and Senate conference committee members at an impasse on April 28 — the day before all bills faced a pass-or-fail deadline — something unusual happened.

Senator Donovan Dela Cruz speaks to Senator Moriwaki during recess at the Capitol.
In the waning days of the 2022 legislative session, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz made a number of moves to gain leverage over a House member that would determine the fate of Dela Cruz’s pet energy bill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee who was pushing a controversial energy bill, suddenly appeared on the Senate conference committee presiding over Lowen’s coffee bill.

Lowen’s House committee had defanged Dela Cruz’s energy bill the previous month by removing a provision designed to redirect Hawaii’s transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy. Any attempt to resurrect Dela Cruz’s energy bill in conference committee would have to get past Lowen.

Now, by appearing on the conference committee overseeing Lowen’s coffee bill, Dela Cruz was showing he had leverage over Lowen.

And that was not an isolated incident.

A record of committee assignments on April 28 shows Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz suddenly moving onto committees negotiating the fate of bills sponsored by Rep. Nicole Lowen. Hawaii Legislature

Four times in the session’s 11th hour, Dela Cruz suddenly appeared on conference committees with the ability to make or break bills Lowen had sponsored. In all four cases, Dela Cruz replaced other members of the WAM Committee with himself.

Then, the legislative record shows, Dela Cruz vanished from the committees almost as suddenly as he appeared, dropping off the committees the same or next day.

Neither Dela Cruz nor Lowen would comment on Dela Cruz’s machinations. But the record shows a pattern: Dela Cruz repeatedly put himself in a position to kill Lowen’s bills at the last minute.

The legislative jockeying illustrates the influence a single legislator can have on the legislative process. In the end, Lowen flipped her position on Dela Cruz’s energy bill. In turn, Dela Cruz let Lowen’s bills move forward with no objections.

Russell Ruderman, a former Big Island senator who served alongside Dela Cruz, said the only thing unusual here was that Dela Cruz left a record of his maneuvers.

“That’s Donovan’s power play in the baldest terms,” Ruderman said. “It sure appears he held Rep. Lowen’s bills hostage to get what he wanted out of her.”

Unusual Last-Minute Moves

It’s not unheard of for lawmakers to ask to switch onto or off of conference committees, said Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi, who makes the conference committee appointments. Kouchi said he usually grants the request of senators when they ask him.

“Certain bills are important to different chairs, and he wants to be there” on the committee, Kouchi said.

But the record shows in the last days of the 2022 session, the changes in conference committee assignments were dominated by Dela Cruz’s flurry of changes involving Lowen’s bills.

For example, the record for the 2022 session shows a handful of committee reassignments earlier as conference committees were forming, but in two instances the bills were ones carried over from 2021 and went nowhere. In another instance, in a routine move, everybody on a conference committee was discharged because the Senate, it turned out, agreed with the House draft after all.

Dela Cruz’s reassignments were different because they happened all at once and late in the session. Plus, almost all involved one House lawmaker’s bills. Out of 13 switches made on April 28-29, eight involved Dela Cruz and Lowen’s bills, House records show.

Although Dela Cruz wouldn’t comment on why he was added to the conference committees dealing with Lowen’s bills, he did deny that he makes deals with other lawmakers to support or oppose bills.

But he added, “I guess you could call consensus building making a deal.”

The Concern Over SB 2510

Hawaii’s energy statute calls for virtually all electricity sold in the state to be produced by renewable resources by 2045, and, if signed by Gov. David Ige, Dela Cruz’s legislation, Senate Bill 2510, will change the law that says how Hawaii is supposed to make the transition.

Hawaii’s energy statute currently allows the utilities, developers of power facilities and regulators to navigate the enormously complicated shift to renewables, guided by factors like reliability and costs for customers. All of this is unfolding against a backdrop of swiftly changing technology that has driven down the costs of wind and solar, for example, and the development of giant batteries that have made electricity produced by wind and solar available even when there’s no wind or sun.

One beneficiary of SB 2510 could be Hu Honua, a controversial wood-burning power plant on the Big Island. Utility regulators on Monday rejected the company’s request to approve a contract with Hawaiian Electric, in part because the deal would increase the typical residential power bill by $10.97 per month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Utilities and other stakeholders say prescribing exactly how much of each type of renewables must be used will make their difficult task even harder. There’s also the question of whether Hawaii wants to lock itself into using certain technologies when something cheaper and more reliable might come along in the next two decades.

But Dela Cruz argues the current law’s hands-off approach isn’t working. For months, he’s been pushing the idea that each island’s renewable energy portfolio needs to include a certain percentage of “firm renewables.” This generally means using things like wood or biodiesel to fire generators.

In January, the senator sponsored his bill requiring that each island’s renewable portfolio consist of at least 55% firm renewables. The bill also limited the use of any other type of renewable to 45% of the portfolio.

The bill’s most visible beneficiary would be Hu Honua, a beleaguered wood-burning Big Island power plant facing an uncertain future. Amid contentious debate, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission on Monday in a 2-1 decision rejected Hu Honua’s request to lock Hawaiian Electric into a 30-year contract with the facility in part because the PUC said such a contract would increase typical monthly residential power bills by almost $11. Greenhouse gas emissions were another concern, the PUC said.

Dela Cruz’s bill could revive Hu Honua’s hopes by requiring the Big Island to use Hu Honua’s power regardless of cost and emissions.

Rep Nicole Lowen during info forum on cesspools.
Rep. Nicole Lowen altered Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz’s energy bill, but the senator succeeded in changing the language through legislative maneuvering. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The prescriptive percentages in Dela Cruz’s measure drew criticism from a range of local energy experts, including the University of Hawaii’s Natural Energy Institute, Hawaiian Electric and the Hawaii State Energy Office.

The Hawaii State Energy Office, for example, testified it was “concerned that as written, establishing such constraints in statute may interfere with the development of an optimized system that balances energy security, grid reliability, and cost control based on available technologies, resources, and needs of Hawaii’s energy systems at the time.”

Despite such concerns, the bill sailed through the Senate. But when it reached its first stop in the House, Lowen’s Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, lawmakers started heeding the critics.

Lowen declined to comment about the maneuvering behind SB 2510, but said she disagrees with prescriptive mandates.

“You can see my preference for policy is based what the House passed out,” she said, referring to her committee’s draft. “It reaffirms what is already in statute and has to do with reliability and affordability, greenhouse gas emissions and reducing our reliance on imports. It is already in law.”

On March 17 the committee voted to delete the prescriptive quota language from the bill. The bill remained that way — essentially defanged — until late April. That’s when House and Senate members were assigned to sort out their differences in conference committee.

While most bill drafts are made public before lawmakers hold hearings on them, giving the public the chance to testify, conference drafts are different. Although voted on in public hearings, they are negotiated behind closed doors, and there’s no chance for testimony.

Such was the case with the energy bill. During the first conference committee hearing on the energy bill, on April 27, Sen. Lorraine Inouye, the Senate conference committee chair, explained the bill was still “a measure in the making,” the video record of the hearing shows.

She suggested interested stakeholders contact her office to obtain a draft, when one was available, but stressed that anything produced would still be subject to ongoing negotiations. She moved to reconvene the next day.

That’s when Dela Cruz intervened directly.

Stakeholders Pushing For Veto

On April 28 Dela Cruz appeared on the conference committee hearing Lowen’s coffee bill, and then he was taken off before they voted.

The same day Dela Cruz appeared on conference committees determining the fate of three other bill’s Lowen had sponsored: one related to recycling, another to require state facilities to implement measures to enhance energy efficiency and the third, establishing a goal to make sure statewide greenhouse gas emissions are at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

The status sheet for Rep. Nicole Lowen’s House Bill 1800 setting a goal to limit greenhouse gas emissions shows how Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz jumped onto and off of the conference committee at the 11th hour. Hawaii Legislature

The next day, Lowen had the chance to vote for or against a new draft of Dela Cruz’s bill. According to this draft, each island would have to generate 33% of its renewable electricity from projects like Hu Honua, and resources like wind and solar would be capped at 45% of the total portfolio.

To Lowen, “being too prescriptive with required percentages does not make sense.”

“We don’t know what the sweet spot is going to be,” she said.

Still, with Dela Cruz hovering around the conference committees deciding the fate of Lowen’s bills, Lowen and Rep. Lisa Marten, Lowen’s vice chair on the House energy and environment committee, voted in favor of the bill adding prescriptive language.

In the end, Dela Cruz — perhaps the most influential senator in the Legislature and who has a reputation for playing hardball — ultimately prevailed in getting his favored bill passed. Lowen’s four bills also passed.

Now, the only obstacle left for Dela Cruz is a potential veto by Ige.

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