Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who is known for his quiet nature, is leading one of the most powerful committees in the Legislature.

For 13 years, former Rep. Sylvia Luke controlled the purse strings in the House, grilling bureaucrats over their spending needs and never shying away from confrontation.

But Luke won her bid to become lieutenant governor, handing off one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature.

The new head of the House Finance Committee, Kyle Yamashita, brings a low-key approach to the job during budget meetings with various departments. His soft-spoken tone typically keeps him out of the limelight and he likes it that way, according to his colleagues. 

Rep Kyle Yamashita during floor session. 13 march 2017
Rep. Kyle Yamashita took over as chair of the House Finance Committee last month. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

The question is how that will serve him as he plays a critical role in deciding how to allocate funds while the state anticipates a $1.9 billion budget surplus.

He must navigate calls to increase affordable housing, homeless services, preschools, health care and other complicated issues. Yamashita also must work with his more outspoken Senate counterpart Donovan Dela Cruz to reconcile differences during conference committees.

Yamashita, 63, also assumes the leadership position amid concerns about transparency and calls for reform after two senior Hawaii lawmakers pleaded guilty to accepting bribes last year.

Yamashita declined to be interviewed for this story, agreeing only to submit answers to questions sent via email.

“He does his homework, and he makes sure his decisions are reasonable.” — Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke

Luke, who worked with Yamashita when he was vice chair on the finance committee, said the House is in good hands.

Yamashita became vice chair after his predecessor, former Rep. Ty Cullen along with former Sen. J. Kalani English were arrested for taking bribes in relation to legislation regarding cesspools and wastewater management. 

“I have come to trust Kyle a lot,” Luke said. “He does his homework, and he makes sure his decisions are reasonable, and his decisions take care of the general public.”

Former state Rep. Joe Souki said Yamashita always wanted to chair the House Finance Committee, although Souki didn’t select him for the job during his reign as House Speaker.

Souki said Yamashita, who has been in office for nearly two decades, is low-key but stressed he’s a hard worker and has institutional knowledge like Luke. 

Finance Chair Sylvia Luke  is flanked by right, Senator Dela Cruz and left, Representative Kyle Yamashita during joint House and Senate budget conference committee meetings held at the Capitol.
House Finance Chair Kyle Yamashita replaced former chair Sylvia Luke. He will now be working with Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

However, Souki said it will be interesting to see how Yamashita’s quiet nature will fare with Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“That would be interesting to have someone quite bombastic and aggressive versus someone who is very quiet,” Souki said. “But with quiet comes strength. So I think he will do a good job.”

Maui County

Dela Cruz isn’t worried, saying he had a good working relationship with Luke and has no problem working with Yamashita.

“He’s deliberate and has great depth,” Dela Cruz said. “He’s been working on the capital improvement budget for at least a decade, and he understands how state departments work already.”

Although Yamashita is new to the leadership position, he brings about 15 years of experience leading the capital improvement projects subcommittee. 

“He’s not a rookie,” Rep. John Mizuno said. “We all support him. We think he’s going to do great things for us. But as House finance chair, you’ve got to have the ability to say no, and he will do that. You need to because you don’t want to bankrupt the state.” 

From Businessman To Politician

The Maui resident is the third-longest serving lawmaker in the House. But he started out as a small-business owner with several retail stores on the Valley Isle.

Yamashita grew up in Aiea on Oahu. the oldest of two siblings. He moved to Maui about 33 years ago and has two children with his wife, Karen.

He began his political career as a legislative staffer for the late Rep. Bob Nakasone. Every weekday morning, Yamashita would catch the first flight to Honolulu then return to finish up work at his Kahului business, the Honolulu Advertiser reported.

Yamashita first ran for office in 2002 against incumbent Republican Rep. Kika Bukoski in a bid to win the seat that represented representing Pukalani, Makawao, Olinda, Pulehu, Kula and Ulupalakua back for the Democrats.

Yamashita lost that election but ran again in 2004, winning more than half the votes.

Yamashita was assigned to the capital improvement projects subcommittee in 2009, replacing his former boss Nakasone who died the previous year.

Rep. Troy Hashimoto, who chairs the House Housing Committee, said he grew up in Yamashita’s district and first met the lawmaker when he was a senior in high school and a student member on the Board of Education.

Hashimoto described his Maui colleague as quiet but effective.

“He delivers and has been behind these projects that we’ve seen statewide, but you just don’t know he’s behind it. He likes to keep it that way,” Hashimoto said. 

Giving Back To The Community

As head of the capital improvement projects subcommittee in the House Finance Committee, Yamashita weighed in on where the Legislature should allocate money to build or renovate public facilities in the state.

He secured funding for building projects at schools and other public facilities, especially in his district. He was one of several Maui lawmakers to obtain $172 million for various projects in Maui, including expanding and improving Kahului Harbor and building and renovating elementary and high schools.

Yamashita also secured $35 million to build the Kekaulike High School Performing Arts Center.

Jan Gouveia, vice president of administration at the University of Hawaii, praised Yamashita and the other finance committee members. UH had budget briefings with the House Finance Committee chaired by Yamashita last week that Gouveia said went well.

“He’s always been trying to figure a way to improve our antiquated procurement process and reaches out to various stakeholders,” Gouveia said, adding that the university has always had a “strong and respectful relationship with Kyle and his entire staff.” 

According to Yamashita’s financial record, he and his wife each make at least $50,000 but less than $100,000. Yamashita’s only occupation is as a lawmaker, while his wife works at Aloha Petroleum Ltd. 

Demonstrators stand in the Capitol rotunda in opposition to  HB2501 with Hawaiian flag. 12 april 2016.
Demonstrators rally against water diversions in 2016, an issue that almost cost Yamashita an election. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

The Democratic lawmaker has supported many bills regarding tax policies and infrastructure. 

Close Call

But one controversial bill almost cost him reelection in 2016, when he faced his toughest race against challenger Tiare Lawrence, an environmentalist who protested the construction of Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea and stream diversions by Alexander and Baldwin. 

Lawrence ran against Yamashita because he supported a bill that passed the Legislature that year, allowing Alexander and Baldwin to continue diverting water from streams in East Maui despite a court ruling invalidating the company’s state permits

Yamashita barely beat Lawrence with 352 more votes

“That was the closest he’s come to losing his seat in a long time,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa. “For an incumbent legislator in Hawaii, it was close.” 

Moore said Yamashita is an “average Democrat” who is backed by the tourism and labor industry as well as agricultural interests.

“He’s pro-union, pro-business, and relatively friendly to tourism,” Moore said. “To be honest, he fits the profile of someone who would get a position like this because you can’t be too far out ideologically and end up being chair of the House Finance Committee.”

Moore said he senses that Yamashita is somebody people can trust to be fair and a good listener.

“He’s a low-profile legislator. He’s never in the news that much,” Moore said. “But if you’re talking about a position for House finance, sometimes you want somebody who’s pretty lowkey.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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