It is an odd-numbered year so most voters probably won’t notice or remember, but this was not the finest hour for Hawaii’s elected officials, or for openness in government.
The most obvious misstep was the state Legislature’s embarrassing failure during its regular 60-day session to adopt a clear policy — any policy — to cope with the city’s inability to cover runaway cost increases for its 20-mile train project.
Should city government, which was supposed to control costs and manage the project, raise the money to cover rail’s estimated $3 billion shortfall? Or should the tourists pay for it? Or should it be all of Oahu’s residents who pay, from the richest to the poorest?
No one knows, because lawmakers couldn’t agree on a bill.
Gov. David Ige has now suggested the leaders of the state Legislature huddle to strike a deal that the deadlocked House and Senate can embrace. Once that has been done, Ige suggested Wednesday he is willing to call lawmakers back into public session to formally approve the negotiated agreement.
Ige explained that everyone involved wants the $10 billion rail project to be completed, but it would be a waste of time to have lawmakers come back to the Capitol to continue arguing publicly about the matter.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell quickly endorsed Ige’s plan, announcing immediately after the 2017 session closed on Thursday that he will continue his lobbying offensive to get lawmakers to agree to provide more money for rail. He will then ask Ige to call a special session to seal the deal.
The message to the public from the chief executives of both the state and the city is that the public process has been too difficult, and this deal needs to be done in private. Once a decision has been made, everyone can go down to the Capitol to watch them rubber-stamp the agreement.
For voters who wonder if they can trust Hawaii’s political leaders to do the right thing during the upcoming secret negotiations, a word of caution: These people don’t even trust each other.
For example, newly elected House Speaker Scott Saiki said Thursday he is willing to contemplate what to do next about rail as soon as the city provides “accurate numbers, specific numbers, so that we can consider them.”
When asked why he doubts the cost estimates that the city and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation have already supplied, Saiki replied: “Because the city and HART have changed numbers whenever they have submitted them … throughout the session.”
Caldwell replied that “I think we’ve given very clear numbers, we told them we need about $8.2 billion total to build this project,” and estimated rail will cost as much as $10 billion when financing costs are figured in.
And what were lawmakers doing this past legislative session while they weren’t resolving the rail shortfall? They were fretting over their own status and power so much they effectively reorganized the House twice and the Senate once in the same session.
House members on March 13 removed Rep. Angus McKelvey from the influential post he held as chairman of the House Consumer Protection Committee, a power shift House members said was prompted by McKelvey’s political maneuvering. McKelvey’s colleagues complained he let them take the fall publicly for some unpopular decisions, including action to kill a bill that would have increased regulation of pesticides.
That reorganization was done against the wishes of House Speaker Joseph Souki, who wanted McKelvey (D, Lahaina-Kaanapali-Honokohau) to remain in place. That proved to be important later — it demonstrated Souki himself was vulnerable because he could no longer control events in the House Democratic caucus.
House members openly speculated Souki might soon leave if he could win appointment to the lieutenant governor’s job if Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui departs to run for Maui mayor.
Last week a majority of senators agreed to remove Ways and Means Chairwoman Jill Tokuda after a 16-9 floor vote on Tuesday in which Tokuda and some of her allies opposed a plan to extend the half-percent excise surcharge for rail by another 10 years, to 2037.
Tokuda said the rail issue was a catalyst for her removal, but said that her removal essentially was “a power grab.” The losing rail vote proved she was vulnerable because a majority of her colleagues disagreed with her, and she is being replaced by state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.
Finally, on Thursday at the start of the last day of the session, the Democrats in the House pressured Souki to resign, and replaced him with Saiki.
Saiki denied his rise had anything to do with rail. He said Souki was removed in a highly unusual end-of-session coup because the new House leadership wants to use the summer months to restructure its organization and plan its program.
However, Souki supports extending the excise surcharge tax for rail permanently to build the 20-mile rail line. Souki’s colleagues and now rivals for power in the House are Saiki and Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, who have opposed plans to make the excise surcharge permanent.
With the construction unions mobilizing to get more funding for rail to create more jobs, and with the tourism industry up in arms at the possibility of a hotel room tax increase to fund rail, Souki had an opportunity to call on powerful industry allies to help him regain control over both the House and the rail issue. He was removed as speaker before that could happen.
All of that political maneuvering took place in private, either in the closed-door Democratic caucuses or in lawmakers’ offices at the Capitol.
And now comes the new plan by Ige, Caldwell and lawmakers to finally resolve the rail debate with more closed-door negotiations. That plan is reminiscent of an earlier moment in the session, when Souki was asked by a reporter why lawmakers were being so secretive about political maneuvering in the House.
Souki joked that “we are always secretive. It’s part of being a legislator.”
He was kidding, but it’s unclear if voters will get the joke.