A new session of the Legislature will convene on Wednesday with an entirely new dynamic between lawmakers and the state’s chief executive, and it could be quite a show.

Emboldened lawmakers who are accustomed to the unassuming style of former Gov. David Ige are about to mix it up with a new governor known for making his pitches directly to the public. Gov. Josh Green is no Ige, and he appears to be already advancing his political agenda without worrying too much about what the other players think.

And state lawmakers have already begun to push back.

In the run-up to the 2022 gubernatorial campaign, then-Lt. Gov. Green made himself famous with his regular briefings on the pandemic. Those updates were reassuring to a worried public, but sometimes annoyed insiders when Green openly disagreed with administration policy, or happily released information that Ige and the county mayors weren’t quite ready to announce.

It was a wildly successful tactic for Green, who is a physician, and it attracted gobs of media attention. The briefings proved to be a major boost for his successful campaign for governor, and also illustrated Green’s penchant for throwing elbows in the political realm.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have become notably more aggressive about pushing forward with their own agendas during the pandemic years, especially when they felt Ige was mired in what House Speaker Scott Saiki has called “analysis paralysis.”

Last day of the House floor Session at the Capitol.
The political dynamic between Gov. Josh Green and the Legislature may be a sharp departure from former Gov. David Ige’s relationship with lawmakers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz points out it was the Legislature — not the Ige administration — that committed $200 million last year to expand access to preschool education in Hawaii, and earmarked another $600 million to accelerate housing development on Hawaiian homelands.

“The Legislature, I think, is OK with being in the driver’s seat,” Dela Cruz said in an interview earlier this month.

Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi have already made it quite clear they have serious doubts about some of Green’s most important campaign promises, including his pledge to eliminate the excise tax on food and medicine and his proposal for a “green fee” that would be imposed on all tourists arriving in Hawaii.

John Hart, communication professor at Hawaii Pacific University, described those public statements by Saiki and Kouchi late last month as “opening salvos” for what may be shaping up as a power struggle.

“It says, ‘We’re large and in charge, and the governor needs to work with us,’” Hart said.

Green won the election last year by presenting himself as the decisive “anti-Ige” who would do big things, Hart said, and the new governor campaigned on a platform of specific proposals that voters presumably want to see enacted.

So Green may need to prod the Legislature to get what he wants, he said, adding that is “going to be a telling mark on his ability to lead.”

“There’s no question he’ll get out there and say we need to get stuff done,” Hart said. “Now, how do you do that in a way that doesn’t offend the Legislature?”

The new governor is expected to roll out much of his policy agenda in his first State of the State address on Jan. 23, but Green has already offered some clues about his plans.

Last week, Green pledged to provide at least $100 million to a “climate impact fund to fight climate change and preserve the state’s natural resources.” Of course, Green cannot do that without the permission of the Legislature, which guards its power over state spending.

Spending more money to cope with climate change is an idea that may well be embraced by many Democrats at the Legislature, but Green apparently rolled out his proposal for the public before pitching it to key lawmakers.

Saiki said he learned of the climate change initiative from the press release Green distributed to the media on the subject, and was still unclear exactly what the governor has in mind.

Gov. Josh Green is expected to lay out an ambitious agenda during his State of the State speech on Jan. 23. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

Green insisted during last year’s campaign that “I have an extremely good relationship with my colleagues at the Legislature.” He argued that anyone who suggested otherwise was simply trying to use that as a campaign issue in the election.

But lawmakers say privately — and Green has acknowledged on occasion — that he rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way during his years in the House and the Senate. Green was known as an ambitious politician focused on aggressively advancing his own interests, sometimes at the expense of others, lawmakers say.

Green is also dealing with a Legislature that is not known for bold, dramatic change. The Legislature is dominated by Democrats who hold veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers, but even seemingly modest steps such as increasing the state minimum wage as the cost of living soars in Hawaii have turned into drawn-out political controversies.

Lawmakers finally got it done last year, increasing the hourly minimum to $12 per hour last October and approving future increases that take effect in a series of steps in the years ahead. The Hawaii minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $14 an hour next year, but the minimum wage in California is already $15.50 an hour.

The comparison with California, where the Democrats also have a super majority in the Legislature, is telling. Like Hawaii, local communities in California grapple with a longstanding affordable housing crisis, and the state population is dwindling as residents clear out. Experts cite factors such as cost of living, high taxes, crime and homelessness as reasons people depart.

But California state government has advanced a startling assortment of new ideas and tweaks to existing law that take effect this year. One example: Lawmakers passed a bill to remove state and local land use requirements to clear a path to develop more than 100,000 acres of commercially zoned land to quickly produce more housing.

A major political difference between the two states is that in Hawaii, “it’s always about stability here,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

He cited the example of the debate over minimum wage here, arguing that, “it’s just about caution. Not conservatism, but caution, and what gets the most attention I think is preserving what people have, as opposed to trying to shake things up,” Moore said.

Moore sees the Legislature executing the agenda of what might be called a “New Deal labor party,” focused largely on the needs of public employees and the middle class. Lawmakers are more likely to hear constituents demanding tax relief than they are to hear demands for dramatic policy changes, he said.

“I don’t think we have big constituencies for the kind of progressive action that you see in L.A. and San Francisco here,” he said. “The core of the Democratic Party here are still public sector workers and union members. They want what they have preserved, but I don’t think there is the pressure to expand into these broader progressive initiatives.”

Hart pointed out that even the decision by the Legislature to commit $600 million to develop housing on Hawaiian homelands last year was an example of the state finally making good on an old obligation to properly fund an existing program, rather than a bold new housing initiative.

Dela Cruz, who is one of the most powerful members of the Senate, is particularly worried about the cost of living, which he sees as intimately tied to the cost of rents and housing.

“We’ve been talking about reversing the brain drain, (and) it’s the whole package — housing, economic diversification, making sure we invest correctly in education — all of these things, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve made significant progress,” he said.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz speaks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz said that rather than rushing to grant another tax rebate, lawmakers should focus on long-term, longstanding issues such as the cost of housing and economic diversification. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The state closed the books last year on a cash surplus of $2.6 billion, which is quite large by Hawaii standards, and that may offer another opportunity to move forward on those issues.

“Now we have cash that we can invest in doing all of those things without burdening the taxpayer in the long run,” Dela Cruz said.

In particular, Dela Cruz supports investing in infrastructure to speed the development of housing and help hold development costs down, and the extra cash could help to do that.

There has been talk the Green administration is contemplating giving taxpayers another tax rebate similar to the $300-per-person rebate lawmakers provided to residents in 2022.

“I think we would all like a rebate, but do we still want to have these long-term problems that are really suffocating Hawaii?” he asked.

Looking at the bigger picture of the relationship between the Legislature and the new governor, Dela Cruz said that “I think the Legislature wants to make sure that it’s going to be a collaborative relationship, so we can have progress and not just talk about it.”

Kouchi and Saiki hinted during a public online discussion last month that lawmakers have their own plans in the works to help lower-income families cope with Hawaii’s cost of living, and to encourage state and county governments to impose more site-specific user fees on tourists when they visit attractions such as parks.

Saiki said in an interview last week with Civil Beat that “one theme will be to see how we can use the surplus to capitalize initiatives that are not recurring, that are basically one-time investments, and renewable energy is one of those areas.”

He declined to make public the details of that renewable energy initiative before session begins Wednesday, but said that “the goal is to help capitalize renewable projects that will benefit working families.” He said the $100 million amount Green pledged to address climate change would be a “doable” amount.

Saiki said he wants the House to become more directly involved in helping the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to plan how it will spend the $600 million that lawmakers committed to DHHL last year to support development of housing on homelands.

He said the House can bring in “people who are knowledgable and have experience in designing a plan,” and those people might include lawmakers and state agency staffers. The “leveraging” may involve drawing down federal funds to help finance projects, or using tax credits to help support development.

“I don’t want them to just focus on purchasing more land, and then come back and say, ‘Now that we have the land, we need more funds for construction,'” Saiki said.

The House is also undergoing a significant change in its makeup, with 18 first-term lawmakers joining the body. That is the largest first-term class in 30 years, Saiki said.

“This class wants to be constructive and wants to problem solve,” he said, adding that “they are very substantive, and they are very focused.”

House Republican Minority Leader Lauren Cheape Matsumoto said her caucus, which numbers six out of 51 House members, will propose a bill to eliminate the state income tax for taxpayers earning less than $150,000, or couples earning less than $300,000. That would provide significant cost-of-living relief to most Hawaii families, she said.

She estimated that would eliminate about $1.9 billion a year in state tax collections, but contends the state should “start stimulating the economy by putting more money in the hands of the people who are here,” she said. “If we’re really serious about helping local families, this is something we could do.”

Matsumoto also said she hopes Green sticks with his campaign proposal to eliminate the excise tax on food and medical services after that idea was criticized by leading Democratic lawmakers. She said House Republicans will introduce a bill to do so, which is something the Hawaii GOP has backed for years.

“My hope is that he sticks to it,” Matsumoto said of Green. “I think it’s a really strong point, and it’s not like it’s a revolutionary idea.”

Most states already exempt food and medical services from their sales taxes, and Hawaii should have done the same years ago, she said.

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