Chad Blair: Donovan Dela Cruz Controls The Money And The Power At The Hawaii Legislature - Honolulu Civil Beat

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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 or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

With budget decisions, legislative priorities and Cabinet confirmations hanging in the balance, the Ways and Means chair is at the center of a legislative whirlwind.

Important hearings are set before the Senate Ways and Means later this week, and many eyes will be on the power of its chair, Donavan Dela Cruz, and his pugnacious style of leadership that have many in and around the Capitol raising protests.

On Thursday morning WAM will announce its action on the state’s two-year, $37 billion budget, a spending plan likely to hold over $1 billion to fund a range of projects that include repairing dilapidated facilities, protecting threatened natural resources and paying for affordable housing projects.

The budget — House Bill 300, which passed the full House March 15 — helps pay for not only the needs of the state for the two years beginning July 1 but also the wish lists of the new Green administration and all 76 members of the House and Senate. Any differences will need to be hashed out in the coming days with the House Finance Committee and its chair, Kyle Yamashita.

On Friday morning WAM will consider Gov. Josh Green’s appointment of Sabrina Nasir to be deputy director of the Department of Budget and Finance.

That afternoon, the Senate Water and Land Committee will consider Green’s nomination of Dawn Chang to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz is often confrontational with department heads if he feels they are not prepared. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Given the Senate’s rejection of three previous Green appointees this session, there is some anxiety over the confirmation chances of Nasir and Chang. And Dela Cruz has not yet scheduled a hearing on Nasir’s boss, B&F Director Luis Salaveria.

The budget and confirmation hearings illustrate the power of the WAM chair and how personality and tactics can influence outcomes. Critics say that under Dela Cruz WAM seems more about transactional politics — “What can you do for me?” — rather than public policy that addresses the pressing needs of the state.

Dela Cruz, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has previously denied any bullying behavior and downplayed his influence. His colleagues who voted against the losing nominees have stated that the nominees were unfit to serve.

Several people with first-hand knowledge of how WAM operates spoke frankly with me about how the process and the politics work, and why the WAM chair is a power broker at the Legislature.

Money, Money

WAM and its counterpart across the aisle, the House Finance Committee, have outsized control over the state budget and its provisos. And while the vice chair of WAM is responsible for sorting out capital improvement projects — the money that goes to every legislative district for needed projects such as schools, libraries, parks, roads — not a single penny can be approved until the WAM chair signs off. Same goes for FIN.

WAM is also a gatekeeper for hundreds of bills, many with their own appropriations, that must be OK’d by the money committees next month. Every session many bills die during the two-week conference committee period at the end of April because they did not earn WAM or FIN approval, a process done behind closed doors and often with little public explanation.

WAM has 13 members and includes Dela Cruz allies Michelle Kidani, Glenn Wakai and Donna Mercado Kim. It is typical for WAM members — and most senators in general — to do as the chair recommends.

That deference to the chair can sometimes go off track. A recent example occurred in late February when WAM “mistakenly” approved a Honolulu rail tax extension. Dela Cruz and 11 of his colleagues including WAM Vice Chair Gil Keith-Agaran, Senate Majority Leader Dru Kanuha and Sen. Lorraine Inouye, voted in favor of the tax extension — something that would have been big news had the vote held, as the rail line is way overbudget and way past its deadline for completion.

But Dela Cruz quickly said it was an oversight and later deferred the bill.

That was some “mistake.” Even Republican Kurt Fevella was a “yes” albeit “with reservations.” Kidani was excused.

A Gang Of Four

The Senate is small enough that just a handful of senators united in a faction can find the 13 votes needed to impact leadership decisions and legislative outcomes. But the only solid faction today is composed of Dela Cruz, Kidani (who is Senate vice president), Wakai and Kim. Other senators will sometimes join them but sometimes join others depending on the issue. Hence the concern that the Senate has become transactional.

But the WAM chair remains the first among equals. While WAM may not have the final say on all bills, including those referred to subject matter committees, he or she is a final arbiter on any potential fiscal impact to the state.

Legislation that does not include a dollar amount, for instance, might still result in costs to the state at a future date — paying for staff, funding pensions and health benefits, and so forth — and so a WAM chair can weigh in authoritatively on its fate.

Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani is a close ally of Donavan Dela Cruz and sits on the WAM committee. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Every department budget also has to go through the money committees. It was during budget hearings earlier this year that Dela Cruz, Kim and other senators were harshly critical of directors that they deemed ill-prepared to defend their requests. That contributed to the Senate rejection of two of them.

Dela Cruz has been WAM chair for six years. He got the job by instigating the ouster of Jill Tokuda, whom Dela Cruz and other senators were primarily unhappy with because she opposed a plan to fund the Honolulu rail project. At the time Dela Cruz was the WAM vice chair.

Now there is grumbling about Dela Cruz, but there does not appear at present any indication that the Senate will move to reorganize itself, especially mid-session.

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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 or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

Vote um out. We can continue to talk about how these bad actors affect us all, but what we need is to form grassroots opposition and candidates during election time and vote them out! The swamp is deep and from what I saw in the mid-terms there appears to be something starting to happen we can hope is positive, or at a minimum different.

wailani1961 · 7 months ago

Chad and CB great article, and I want to comment on something else regarding Senator Favella, Yes, Dela Cruz is in charge of the money subject issues and so forth, But what is Senator Favella's hidden role in the Senate ? To set up all other issues a side and cause conflict with the Governor's selections or recommendations. Maybe this could be why Dela Cruz is made to be the bad guy which is why we're not hearing Favella's name mentioned.

unclebob61 · 7 months ago

The system of favoritism and trading favors has deep roots. Legislators use it for their benefit. For example, the DOE $35M Mega Kitchen. DOE doesn't even have a written plan, but the taxpayers are footing the bill. In what financial universe does anyone give out $35M without a documented plan? Is it acceptable to dole out taxpayer dollars with no concrete plan? Perhaps term limits is the answer or limits on the Chairperson position on each committee. Maybe the Legislators should not serve on any one committee for more than three years. Green touted the importance of ethics but there has not been much movement in that area. Sadly Hawaii has a long way to go in addressing the ethics issue. Unfortunately taxpayers bear the brunt of legislators failures in the ethics department. There are very few legislators who care about truly serving the people of the state. Auwe!

EthicsWatchdog · 7 months ago

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