State House Democrats, unable to agree on leadership, were on the brink last night of allowing internal differences to affect opening day of the state Legislature.
State House Speaker Calvin Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Palolo Valley-Wilhelmina Rise) has been negotiating privately over the past several days with Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Pacific Heights-Pauoa-Punchbowl) to end a leadership stalemate that has gone on since the November elections.
Say and Luke have exchanged potential committee lineups to share power but had not reached agreement as of late last night. If the impasse continues this morning, the House would gavel in a new 60-day session without a leadership slate for what is believed to be the first time since 1971.
House leadership posts, committee chairmanships and committee assignments remain unsettled.
Say, who has led the chamber since 1999 and is the longest-serving speaker since statehood, still has the option of accepting an offer by House Republicans to give him the votes he needs to stay in power. But Say has chosen to continue talks with the dissidents challenging him to try to settle the leadership fight among Democrats.
THE 26TH LEGISLATURE
State House and Senate leaders will open a 60-day session at 10 a.m. today at the state Capitol.
Senate President Shan Tsutsui and Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom will make opening speeches in the Senate, followed by entertainment by the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus, Society of Seven and Willie K. In the House, where leadership remains unsettled, Rep. Mark Nakashima will preside.
The Moanalua High School string ensemble and artist-in-residence Sean Naauao will perform.
Many lawmakers will hold receptions in their offices.
"It’s not any embarrassment to the party or anyone out there, because at the end of the day, we’re just here to do the people’s work," Say said of the protracted negotiations.
Say said he does not believe dissidents have the leverage to force a new speaker — what he called "ABC, Anybody but Calvin" — so the end result is likely a negotiated division of committee chairmanships and leadership posts or his acceptance of the GOP commitment. "At some point in time, may it be Wednesday or Thursday or Friday, a vote has to occur, to get the people’s work done," he said.
Luke said the dissidents’ goal is shared responsibility. "We continue to work towards bringing people together, bringing the sides together, so that we can all be productive."
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and other leading Democrats have urged House Democrats not to organize with Republicans and instead negotiate a reasonable compromise. The senator, after meeting privately with both camps on Friday, said it would be embarrassing for the stalemate to extend to opening day. He also said it would be "disgraceful" to rely on Republicans.
But majority Democrats have taken advantage of GOP votes in the past. In 1971, House Speaker Tadao Beppu accepted Republican help to end a leadership struggle that extended two weeks — 10 legislative days — into the session. In 1981, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Democratic Party of Hawaii Chairman Dante Carpenter were among a group of Democrats who formed a coalition with Republicans to organize the state Senate.
Say said last night that if no deal is reached by this morning, his preference is to open the session with the traditional speeches and music and put off a leadership discussion until this afternoon. Under that scenario, House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa Valley-Aiea Heights) would likely give opening remarks instead of Say. House Minority Leader Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai) is scheduled to speak for Republicans.
By tradition Rep. Mark Nakashima (D, Kohala-Hamakua-N. Hilo), who represents House District 1, functions as the presiding officer until a speaker is chosen by resolution.
Nakashima, one of the dissidents, said it would likely be "chaos" if individual lawmakers attempt to force a floor vote on a resolution this morning. More likely, Nakashima and others said, lawmakers will wait until the afternoon or later. Some lawmakers are sensitive about exposing family, guests and VIPs gathered for the traditional celebration to a floor fight over leadership.
Democrats control 43 of the 51 House seats and 24 of 25 state Senate seats, the most lopsided advantage in the nation. Some Democrats believe it would be a black eye for the party if House Democrats have to organize with Republicans. A Say alliance with the GOP — even if it is only for leadership votes — could also give dissidents ammunition to use in future challenges.
Say has 25 votes to remain as speaker, one vote short of a majority. The dissidents have 17 votes. One House seat is vacant.
Separate from the leadership talks, four dissidents suggested a rule change yesterday that would limit a speaker, other leaders and committee chairmen to serve six years in those posts. The dissidents believe a time limit would help ensure routine succession and promote fresh ideas.
Ward has been urging Say for more than a week to accept the Republican votes and to organize the House. "Let’s get on with the business of doing the business of the people who sent us here," he said.
House Republicans released their legislative package yesterday, which includes a constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds’ votes in the House and Senate for any tax increase, college tuition incentives for high-school students who finish early and enroll in the University of Hawaii system, and public hearings whenever the state salary commission recommends pay raises for lawmakers.