Election-year politics often drive events at the state Capitol, but devotees of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa could cause the 2018 session of the state Legislature that opens today to devolve into a particularly partisan affair.
When Hanabusa formally launched her campaign to try to unseat Gov. David Ige at a press conference this month, she was joined at the event by a gaggle of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, including House Speaker Scott Saiki, House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, Senate President Ron Kouchi and Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani.
Those lawmakers have more than enough political juice among them to dictate the fate of almost any proposal at the state Legislature, and Hanabusa supporters seem to have little incentive to support Ige’s plans or ideas this session.
Ige’s critics have tried almost since the beginning of his administration to paint him as indecisive and ineffective, and he was stung by similar criticism this week in the wake of the state’s sluggish response to Saturday’s false alarm announcing a missile attack on Hawaii.
It would powerfully reinforce the political message of Ige’s supposed ineffectiveness if House and Senate lawmakers were to embarrass the governor by ignoring his most important initiatives this year.
Ige acknowledged that possibility in an interview last week but said he feels “very good” about both the supplemental budget he submitted to lawmakers and the package of administration bills he will ask them to pass this year.
“We have focused on doing the people’s business, identifying the priorities that we believe are a reflection of our community, and so I trust that the Legislature will do their job,” he said.
Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said Ige may be in for a rough session.
“Ige is pretty weak, both because legislators know that he’s not particularly popular, and he’s facing a tough re-election campaign, and so his ability to whip votes or to persuade legislators to support his package is pretty low right now,” Moore said.
When top-ranking Democratic lawmakers turned out to publicly support Hanabusa at her formal campaign launch outside the state Capitol on Jan. 8, “that clearly indicates they’re not interested in doing any favors for Gov. Ige, which is going to make it even harder for him to get anything done,” Moore said.
That may be particularly harmful for Ige heading into the Democratic primary election against Hanabusa because Ige stressed his positive working relationship with the Legislature when he campaigned against former Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2014, Moore said.
If Ige is unable to move his proposals forward through the Legislature, “that fits with the narrative that the Hanabusa campaign already wants to tell, which is that he hasn’t been a capable leader and doesn’t really have a clear direction,” Moore said.
Ige quickly dismisses any suggestion that he has been ineffective, pointing to 5,300 housing units that have been completed during his tenure, and 1,400 more under construction.
He also cited his efforts to expand the Early College Program that helps high school students take college classes for credit, and the state’s first-in-the-nation commitment to generating all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045.
“You can talk about being ineffective, but the evidence is different,” Ige said.
Traditionally the governor doesn’t unveil his legislative agenda for each session until his State of the State address, which Ige will deliver Monday. However, provisions in the budget proposed by Ige last month appear to closely track some issues that interest lawmakers.
For the most part Ige said he will be “seeking additional funds for things that we know that work.” For example, Ige’s budget request for this year includes $15 million for initiatives to cope with homelessness through programs such as Housing First, Rapid Re-Housing, outreach services and other homeless initiatives.
He also plans to ask lawmakers for more money for infrastructure such as sewers and roads to help develop more low-income rentals.
Saiki said the House also plans to focus this year on the problems of homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing, including the issue of infrastructure, he said. He expects that will take the form of increased subsidies for renters, funding for transitional centers for the homeless, and subsidies to encourage development of affordable housing.
“I don’t see on the House side any effort by the House leadership to derail any of the governor’s bills. We’ll just deal with them on a bill-by-bill basis,” he said.
Power in the Legislature rests largely with the chairman or chairwoman of each committee, “so we’ll leave it up the committee chairs to weight the merits of bills, including the governor’s bills this session,” Saiki said.
Saiki added that “the governor is a decent and well-meaning person, and I really like him. At this time the state is facing so many big, complex challenges, and I just feel the current administration has just not had a grasp on many of these issues.”
Kouchi said he is a friend of Hanabusa and supported her in her campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2014, but he has not yet endorsed her. He said he attended her campaign kickoff because he was invited.
“I talked to the governor more than a month ago, and I told him no matter what happens in the upcoming election that he had my commitment with work with him to get the best legislation for the people of Hawaii,” Kouchi said. “No matter what I wind up deciding to do, I’m certainly going to keep my word.”
Luke, who also joined Hanabusa’s gathering and posed for photos with her, said that “elections are one thing, but legislative work during the session is another thing. We all want the same thing, we all want things that are good for our districts, and so by not passing anything, it kind of hurts the Legislature at the same time, so we have to put that aside.”
Luke supported Ige in 2014, when he was campaigning against Abercrombie.
“We kind of separated out what’s legislative work and what’s campaign, and (Ige) himself was very cognizant as not to be too critical of the governor,” she said.
In 2014 Ige opposed Abercrombie administration proposals to provide laptops for every student and to provide a free preschool education for every 4-year-old, but said he said he was focused “on doing the people’s business as a legislator as I am now as governor.”
The state Legislature will open its 2018 session today with speeches and some patriotic song but a minimum of other fanfare.
The House and Senate are scheduled to convene at 10 a.m., followed by singing of the national anthem and “Hawaii Pono’i.”
In the House, Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald will administer the oath of office to newly appointed state Rep. Lei Learmont (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore-Poamoho). Learmont is replacing former Rep. Marcus Oshiro, who resigned last year.
House Speaker Scott Saiki, Republican Minority Leader Andria Tupola and Democratic House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti will also offer opening remarks.
Senate President Ron Kouchi will make opening remarks on behalf of the Democrats in the Senate. There are no Republicans in the 25-member Senate.
The public is invited to attend the opening floor sessions, but seating is limited. Doors to the House and Senate galleries will open at 9:45 a.m.
Residents and visitors who plan to attend are encouraged to carpool or use public transportation because there will be no public parking at the Capitol.
Some lawmakers will hold open houses in their Capitol offices to greet constituents after the floor sessions.
House floor proceedings will be aired live on Olelo channel 49, and Senate floor proceedings will be aired live on Olelo channel 55. The ceremonies will also be streamed live online at www.olelo.org.
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