Rep. Jeanne Kapela: State Budget ‘Failed Massively’ By Spending Too Much Here, Too Little There - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at

The Big Island legislator says the tradition of finishing up a secretive spending plan at session’s end creates unnecessary havoc.

Rep. Jeanne Kapela, who was first elected in 2020, was one of five Democrats who took the unusual step of voting against the final budget bill just before the Legislature adjourned. In an interview with Civil Beat that has been edited for clarity and length, she calls for an overhaul of the process.

Before you cast your vote against the budget on the House floor, you voiced concerns about inadequate funding for public schools. What else bothered you about the budget?

When you look at the education system, I feel like we’ve drastically underfunded public education all the way through higher education. And that, to me, is what’s so disappointing.

And I mean, there’s so much on the chopping block. We’ve underfunded SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). We didn’t have any state funding going toward the Double (Up Food) Bucks program, which means we also lose the federal match. This is a project that is beneficial for families who have no or limited access to fresh food and vegetables across our state.

The other issue is that it seems like we’re funding programs that don’t actually benefit the common good for Hawaii. And in a year when the public’s actually becoming more involved and really watching the Legislature, I think we failed massively.

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There are certain departments that actually got way more money than they know what to do with.

Exactly. We really need to change so much about our budget process at the Legislature. It’s clear that it’s flawed.

I think we need to ensure that the budget process is completed earlier in the year. We lost a week of conference committee just because the budget wasn’t finalized and it’s no wonder that we were standing in a cattle call at the very last hour hoping to get anything across the finish line.

It was tragic because you saw these chairs and committee members and those of us who are super-invested in different bills, just grasping to try and get these things heard when it seemed like the Finance Committee knew what they were going to pick and choose at the beginning of the week, and it was all of their friends’ bills.

It had nothing to do with actual merits of each bill. It almost feels like we’re not focusing on legislation. We are focusing on petty corporate interests. And I think we have a budget that reflects that.

It’s important for people to speak out when they feel that mistakes are being made.

I think additionally, we need to make sure that there’s so much greater transparency about what is actually in the budget — the fact that we’re now seeing these budget sheets three weeks after the legislative session finished.

When we voted on that budget, we were given highlights. No budget sheets, no breakdowns. So the only things that we really had to go off of was the bill itself, plus what we could get from different departments. So none of us truly know what you’re voting on until after it’s done.

One thing that we can do would be to take legislative add-ons, these single appropriation items that are contained in different bills and then later pulled back to the budget, and pass them through the bills that they’re actually proposed through instead of trying to put them all in one thing at the very end each year. There’s so many appropriation measures that get inserted into the budget and the bills themselves don’t move forward.

What’s an example of an add-on that perhaps could be considered as a single bill instead of just piled in with everything else?

Oh, here’s a great one, because I think that this is a terrible bill. There was a bill to give $10 million to the University of Hawaii for something that it didn’t actually ask for. I think if you ask the administration, this was not one of their priorities and it was to create an astronomy school that also doubled with the Department of Defense.

The university is drastically underfunded. But we’re going to spend $10 million on this project. Here on the House side we didn’t want to move it forward because there are other things that we should be spending the money on. And (the Higher Education chair) didn’t hear the bill. So it was a pet project of someone in the Senate and they inserted it directly into the budget.

That’s one small example but every single year there are so many bills that just get thrown into the budget. And they’re usually these pet projects of legislators that have control over over the budget, i.e., the finance chairs.

Rep. Jeanne Kapela explains her opposition to the budget bill — and the process that led to it — on the House floor. At right is one of the budget’s architects, Finance Chair Kyle Yamashita. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

You obviously have a lot of concern about poverty. You’re the chair of the Working Families Caucus and you’ve noted in the past that that you grew up in poverty and that a lot of your district doesn’t even have running water. I would imagine seeing this budget process play out is hard for you.

Absolutely. It’s egregious and it’s disappointing. (With a budget surplus) coming into the year, no programs should have faced budget cuts. Allocating $1 billion to the rainy day fund was, in my view, not the best way to use our surplus. Instead, we should have used that money to strengthen core state programs.

We just fell short and we lacked the political will. And I think we were led by a Finance chair who is so conservative he cares more about his single-handed vision than the entire state. And it was at the expense of taxpayers and it was at the expense of working families.

Did you get any pushback after voting no on the budget bill?

Well, I think that’s yet to be discovered. We’ll see. But one thing that I will say, I’m used to voting this way. I have always voted with deep integrity. I represent an extremely impoverished community that’s 108 miles long. Within it there are so many struggles and so many people with deep needs. So I’ve never worried about the way that I vote, because I always vote with the integrity of the people that have deep needs.

But I will say that it took a lot of courage for people to vote no or even to vote with reservations on the state budget, which is in some ways unheard of. I’m proud of the people who spoke up about those concerns. I’m proud of those of us who were able to vote no. And I’m proud that I wasn’t alone in that.

I think we haven’t received any serious pushback, and I hope that remains true and that there isn’t any kind of internal retaliation against those of us who have voiced our feelings. But regardless, I think that it’s important for people to speak out when they feel that mistakes are being made.

Kapela, left, consults with two of the other Democrats who took the unusual step of voting against the budget, Rep. Amy Perruso, center, and Rep. Della Au Belatti. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Did you know that four other Democrats were also going to vote no?

I had an idea, but you never know until you’re on the floor.

There had been several conversations with different legislators about our concerns or about our displeasure or our frustration. But people never voiced exactly how they’re going to vote until they’re on the floor. And at the same time, I had thought that there were going to be more no’s. And I will be very honest. I had received a handful of phone calls from different members asking me, “Are you sure you want to vote no? Can you handle that kind of pressure?”

My response is always going to be, and was then, that my community has a lot of needs and their needs are not being addressed in this budget.

When you say that you were surprised that more people didn’t vote no, is that because other legislators are becoming increasingly dissatisfied?

I think that if you look at what happened in that cattle call, regardless of the budget — the budget was the culmination of the pain that so many of us felt on that Friday when we had to take that cattle call. The entire environmental slate died. There were so many health-related, mental health-related, community-focused bills that died.

I think that there were a lot of members who are displeased. But whether or not they can find the political courage, because it is a political vote. Right? You’re not just voting on the budget. You are voting on the way your friends see you, the way your colleagues see you, the relationships that you built. And this is the building that’s built on relationships. That’s something that legislators struggle with constantly.

No matter how many times someone tells you to vote your conscience, they always want you to vote a specific way.

What other changes would you like to see in the rules that the House operates by? Should chairs, for instance, be less powerful than they are?

Well, I think the chair should have to hold a vote on deferring bills when they recommend doing so. I think that they shouldn’t hold that bill hostage and just defer it. And what I’ve also learned is that most members are likely go along with whatever the chair’s recommendation is. We call it “voting with the chair.”

Also, and this is a big issue for me, I’d like to see nonfiscal bills not referred to the Finance Committee. They don’t actually have any money that’s going into these bills, yet they’re held hostage by the money committees. And we saw a lot of these bills that died in the cattle call, literally thrown out.

A few legislators have talked about establishing term limits for legislative leaders and the chairs, which would limit how long they could serve as, say, speaker of the House or chair of a particular committee such as Finance. Would you vote for a rule change that would do that?

You know, honestly, I think I would. I personally remain skeptical of of term limits just because the evidence to me doesn’t show that they significantly improve the outcomes overall for legislators. But I think if we were to just do certain chairs or leadership positions, I think I would support that.

A little bit of change can be very good. And there are definitely some instances where chairs have been not kind to different departments or entities within our state.

Public financing and creating a clean elections program is the holy grail of government reform.

What about expanding public financing of campaigns, something that died at the hands of the money chairs? Where do you stand on on that?

Oh, I’m so disappointed that didn’t pass. Public financing and creating a clean elections program is the holy grail of government reform.

Too often, I think elected officials respond to the concerns of people who fund their campaigns, not to community members, not to people who need the most assistance. I think that’s why our government just so often puts corporate greed ahead of the needs of people and most working-class individuals.

I mean, they can barely afford to pay for the cost of housing and food. They can’t afford to put their own money into campaigning for public office. So we want regular people to be running for these positions because they bring that reality into this building. And this is a building that is so removed from the truth, so removed from everyday life.

So I just think that if we if we want to create a government that is driven by public concerns, then we have to create a campaign system that cannot be purchased by political profiteers. I was really heartened to see the clean elections bill make it as far as it did this session. That needs to be a priority, I think, for next session.

View of the House in session. The  last day of 2022 Legislature session..
Should this be a year-round scene? One of the often-discussed reform proposals would extend the length of the legislative session. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Another reform that didn’t get far this year, but is talked about quite a bit as potentially a game changer, would be extending the length of the legislative session. How do you feel about that?

I am super-supportive of lengthening the legislative session. I mean, we have a very short session in which legislators are literally grappling with thousands of issue areas each year. It’s extremely challenging to do justice to any of those issues in such a short time frame.

So additionally, I think increasing transparency often requires more time. For instance, the public often has a 48-hour notice about bills that are being heard and only 24 hours to submit on-line testimony. To allow for wider public input on the measures we consider, I think that we need to give the public more time to review what’s being heard and more time to teach legislators about some of these issue areas that they may not be as familiar with.

For legislators, often the reality is we only get a few hours to review public testimony, and many times you’re getting it right as you’re walking into the hearing. So extending the session will allow us more time to really think about the feedback that the people provide.

And lastly, we don’t get everything right. We sometimes make mistakes. New information comes to light after a session occurs or economic conditions change. So if we lengthen session, I think that we’ll really have an opportunity to correct some of the oversights that occur.

With a longer session, would you support applying the Sunshine Law to the Legislature?

I think this is a challenging question. If the Legislature was subject to the Sunshine Law, I think a number of things would change. The Sunshine Law requires six days‘ notice for public meetings. If that was applied to the Legislature, then committees would only be able to meet about once a week during session, which is not enough time to do all of the work that’s required for each committee.

I think that legislators also want to be able to talk in groups, even small groups, to discuss different issues, which is a really important tool. We often meet quite frequently on different matters of concern, especially on complex or controversial issues.

The greatest accountability comes from the public and we have to be able to let them into this building.

For example, this year I sponsored a bill to legalize recreational cannabis. And there were a lot of legalization models that were proposed and lots of details to work out, including the tax structure, the administration of the program, expungement of prior cannabis offenses and so much more. But being able to speak with other legislators about these issues and about their concerns is essential in order to craft sound public policy.

Another consequence of the Sunshine Law being applied is that it may eliminate legislative caucuses. And for me, as someone who runs the Working Families Caucus, these are caucuses that really help us talk through issues to get on the same page before introducing legislation.

You’ve just finished up your third session. Has the House become more or less transparent in how it conducts business?

I think gradually, it has become more open. In large part, I think because it was forced to do so by the political scandal surrounding (the bribery convictions of former legislators) Ty Cullen and J. Kalani English. And we did pass a number of the bills that were supported by the Foley Commission and adopted certain rule changes to implement other suggestions.

As someone who has always been a very vocal member and a vocal progressive member — and I have not always been well-received — but I do feel that they’re making more efforts to to include our voices. It’s definitely not perfect, though.

Kapela believes many other legislators are dissatisfied with the budgeting process besides just the five who voted against it. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

But I will say that the state House and the state Senate, for example, have created nepotism rules, and legislative allowance claims made by members of either chamber are now available for public review.

I think one of the greatest things about the Foley Commission is that it allowed the public to provide feedback about potential changes to the legislative process that they would like to see. So it wasn’t entirely determined by legislators themselves. I think that we absolutely must create a permanent space for the public to have that kind of input in addition to the legislative process.

One idea would be to reconvene a committee like the Foley Commission once every biennium so that there is an independent committee available to review government and election processes on a regular basis as technology changes and as new processes are implemented.

The greatest accountability comes from the public and we have to be able to let them into this building.

What have you been up to since adjournment? Did you feel like when you got home that people had been watching?

It’s actually surprising how many people are watching. I have gotten so many emails and calls from constituents and people that I didn’t even know who were grateful for the way that I had voted.

I think I have a community that expects me to vote the way that I did. So I don’t think that they were surprised. But it is nice to know that while people in the building may not have the courage yet, that there are community members who are willing and ready to support us when we can find the courage as a whole to make transformational change a possibility in the Legislature.

Do you do you think there will be more reform next session?

I can’t answer that question yet, but I certainly hope so. You never know until you’re there. And with a politician, they often say one thing and they do something completely different. It’s important for people to be able to see track records that actually track.

It’s definitely going to take more than a year.

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Much respect to this honorable legislator! I wish I was in her district so I can cast my vote for her. We need more politicians with her ideals.

Scotty_Poppins · 4 months ago

Can't vote for her but I'm sending her money.

Fred_Garvin · 4 months ago

The bad actors should be replaced, and the system (the rules of the House and Senate) should be changed so that it's more democratic. It's ironic that the legislature, one of the institutions of democracy, does not operate democratically. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few.

sleepingdog · 4 months ago

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