House members are divided into working in groups aimed at proposed legislation. Senators will propose individual ideas to a caucus meeting next month.

The top leaders of the Hawaii State Legislature are responding to the wildfires on Maui in different ways, and at different times.

It is a pattern seen in other recent crises such as the Covid pandemic and corruption cases — the House acting quickly and as a united chamber, the Senate reacting somewhat slower and offering more individual actions.

For example, House Speaker Scott Saiki issued a statement on behalf of his entire chamber on Aug. 9, the day after the fires first blazed.

“We are continuing to monitor the wildfires that have spread throughout Maui and our hearts remain heavy as the destruction unfolds,” the statement read in part.

Rep. Kyle Yamashita, chair of the House Finance Committee who also represents Upcountry Maui, promised aid and collaboration in the same press release.

House Speaker Scott Saiki, left, and Senate President Ron Kouchi are taking separate approaches to dealing with the Maui fires. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Senate President Ron Kouchi issued a formal statement on the fires, too, but not until Aug. 17. That was more than a week after Saiki’s response as well as a joint statement from the three Maui senators who offered their own shared condolences and aloha Aug. 9.

That same day, those same senators — Angus McKelvey, Gil Keith-Agaran and Lynn DeCoite — announced a donation drive for Maui relief. Within days it received over 10,000 pounds of food and other “high need items” such as diapers and baby formula.

The contrasting responses illustrate what has become apparent as of late: The two chambers work in very different ways, even though they ultimately must reach consensus on policies and appropriations.

Still, the House has often been the more proactive body, the Senate more reactive.

The House has also acted as a bipartisan body. A month after the fires, it set up six interim working groups to make recommendations in the session that begins in January.

Fifty of the 51 House members (including the minority Republicans) are directly involved in the work (see list below), with the exception of Jeanne Kapela, who opted out because she’s expecting a baby.

The first public meeting of a working group, the one focused on education, was held Sept. 28 at Harvest at Kumulani Chapel in Lahaina. The legislators, including co-chair Justin Woodson of Maui, heard from lots of frustrated parents, teachers and others in the community concerned about evacuation plans and the quality of air and water at the three Lahaina schools set to reopen beginning Oct. 16.

Little in the way of policy ideas appear to have come from the education working group, but more community meetings are planned after Nov. 1. That’s when the first draft of the report from the working groups will be made public.

Saiki said Monday that all six groups “are actively assessing specific topics” related to the wildfires and making recommendations for appropriate legislative action. The work includes meeting with stakeholders and collecting data to guide lawmakers in writing bills.

Senate Doing ‘Due Diligence’

The House’s organized response is similar to how it formed a special commission in early 2022 to improve standards of conduct for lawmakers. It came right after two of their colleagues pleaded guilty to accepting bribes.

The work of what was called the Foley commission resulted in a package of bills heard in the 2022 session, with many — but not all — measures becoming law. The Senate did not form a similar group, although senators did introduce their own good government legislation.

At the height of Covid-19, Saiki led a select committee to come up with an economic and financial preparedness plan. The group included top leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, and the discussions were largely seen as substantive and far-reaching.

Ways and Means Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz chaired a Senate select committee on Covid, but membership was limited to senators. Interviews with some government officials were sometimes confrontational, and the panel’s work is perhaps best remembered for an unannounced visit to the state Department of Health to examine contact tracing.

The Hawaii State Senate will have to agree on any bills and spending packages regarding Maui with the House. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In response to the Maui fires, the Senate has not formed comparable working groups, and Kouchi declined to speak on the topic of the Senate’s response to the fires. Calls to Vice President Michelle Kidani and Dela Cruz were not returned. Housing committee chair Stanley Chang was traveling, as was public safety committee chair Glenn Wakai.

Instead, Matthew Prellberg, the Senate’s director of communications, said committee chairs and other senators are “doing their due diligence” to prepare proposals and legislation relating to the wildfires.

“The majority Senators have been asked to present any plans for legislation relating to the wildfires when the Majority Caucus meets in early November to identify its priorities for the upcoming session,” he said via email.

The Senate has not been quiet on the fires, but senators have generally reacted solo or in small groups.

To that end, the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, led by Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, held a field briefing Sept. 28 in Lahaina to take testimony on wildfire-related insurance claims. The senators heard a long list of problems, and they pushed the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and its insurance division to help those who have lost properties.

DeCoite and Rep. Daniel Holt, the chairs of economic development committees, invited other lawmakers and administration officials to a meeting held by the Lahainatown Action Committee to address businesses impacted by the fires.

Lahaina business owners were presented with a tentative plan for a $25 million fund to provide cash grants to help them survive. But the meeting was not open to the media or the public.

Some senators say they are waiting to take the lead from their Maui colleagues.

“On the Senate side, we have had discussions about how best to be helpful and not hinder the process,” said Sen. Chris Lee, chair of the transportation committee. “We’ve really been deferring to our Maui colleagues to help give us guidance on what’s really needed on the ground. We’re just waiting for the triage to sort of slow down and stabilize over there and then waiting for those colleagues to signal exactly what they need help with.”

Those colleagues, however, will not include Keith-Agaran, who is stepping down Oct. 31 to focus on the work of his law firm that’s active in Maui fire lawsuits.

Karl Rhoads, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, acknowledged that his chamber has a different approach than the House.

“But we already know what our responsibilities are as committee chairs, and we act accordingly,” he said. “Just because you have working groups or a new commission doesn’t mean it can deal with the problem any better than the kind of the current committee structure. I mean, it’s going to end up in the committee structure anyway.”

Rhoads said the House’s approach may make it more high profile but that it would be a mistake to suggest that the Senate is ignoring the fires.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.

State Senator Angus McKelvey hugs Paele Kiakoua during a Lahaina Strong news conference pleading for Gov. Josh Green to keep West Maui close to tourism Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, in Honolulu. More than 10,000 residents of Lahaina and Maui-wide ask for more time to recover from the Aug. 8 fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
State Sen. Angus McKelvey hugs Paele Kiakoua during a Lahaina Strong news conference pleading, unsuccessfully, for Gov. Josh Green to keep West Maui closed to tourism. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Some senators are already looking at specific legislation. That includes Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the water and land committee. She plans to revive a bill from a few sessions ago intended to address wildfire mitigation efforts before it was heavily rewritten in conference and died.

Inouye, who was at the meetings on Maui focused on business recovery and insurance, said she has also been in close contact with boaters in West Maui that don’t believe the Hawaii Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation is adequately listening to their concerns.

And McKelvey, the Maui senator who lost his home in the Lahaina fires, said he’s working with Keohokalole to brainstorm legislative ideas following the insurance hearing. Mortgage relief is another priority, as is access to medical care.

But it all takes time and a lot of discussion and consultation even as the grieving and healing continue. McKelvey said one major purpose of the community meetings has been to allow citizens the opportunity to vent their feelings.

“We got to create consistency and clarity and a blueprint, and decide what the engagement is and how we’re going to follow up,” said McKelvey, who is still living with family members in a Kaanapali hotel. “That’s kind of how I’m approaching it on my end as the senator from the area.”

Several senators also noted that Green continues to take the lead on the fires, along with county and federal officials.

The authority of Hawaii’s governor, which includes emergency powers when necessary, was recently on display: McKelvey, Lahaina Rep. Elle Cochran and other legislators urged Green to hold off on reopening much of West Maui to tourism beginning Sunday.

The governor rejected the pleas, arguing that a recovering visitor industry is central to Maui’s revival.

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