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State Senate will lean left, House will go right

In analyzing the power shifts in leadership and committee assignments for the upper house of the Hawaii State Legislature, we predict a more liberal Senate in the 2015-16 Legislature. But the House will likely shift right.

Will Caron

Earlier today, we posted the Senate committee assignments for the 2015-16 sessions of the 28th Legislature. Our analysis focuses on a few key shifts in the Senate which we believe will angle the upper house further left than it was during the 2013-14 sessions. At the same time, we are waiting to see what the House committee assignments will be (they come out tomorrow), but expect the House to shift conservative.

What are the origins of these power shifts? Our thought is that it may begin with the Senate leadership. After failing to follow in Colleen Hanabusa’s footsteps and jump from President of the State Senate to Congressional Representative, Donna Mercado Kim doesn’t seem to have a lot of control over her Senate these days. It’s likely that she had to make some concessions to the more liberal end of the Senate to keep the presidency.

The result of this is that the Senate leadership (other than Mercado Kim) has shifted far to the left and most of the important committees have been retained by or given to more liberal senators. The conservative senators in leadership and in charge of powerful committees in the last Legislature have effectively been demoted. In effect Donna Mercado Kim, a conservative democrat, is liberalizing the Senate. Although in many ways she has no choice, a cynical point of view might be that she is also banking on the House becoming more conservative. If she has a liberal Senate that is trying to pass reform-minded bills but the conservative House keeps shutting them down, Mercado Kim can say she tried her best to pass reform bills, while relying on the House to shut them down.

The House caucus is going to be tough for reform bills this Legislature. It’s still divided after 2013’s Special Session and last year’s regular session. The 2014 election netted a slight gain for the progressives in the House in terms of total seats, but because the alliance with the House Republicans is now over, the more conservative end of the House spectrum will be more integrated and have more power.

Power Shift in the Leadership

In the leadership positions, conservative democrat Ronald Kouchi has been replaced as Vice President by the moderate Will Espero. Kouchi is now the Vice Chair of the Ways and Means (WAM) Committee, in charge of the Capitol Improvement Budget. He is paired with the fiscally conservative Jill Tokuda (more on this later).

Former Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria has been replaced by J. Kalani English and is now the Vice Chair for the Water and Land (WTL) committee. He is paired with the liberal Laura Thielen as chair.

Liberal Josh green has replaced Will Espero as Majority Floor Leader. Jill Tokuda is no longer Majority Whip, having been replaced with Brian Taniguchi. The other whip, moderate Gilbert Kahele, has been made Majority Caucus leader.

Les Ihara Jr., perhaps the most liberal senator, will retain his position as Majority Policy Leader. Ihara is strangely missing from any committee leadership roles, however. We believe this may be because he will be tapped by governor-elect David Ige to serve on his cabinet. If any senator was to be tapped to the cabinet, Ihara seems the most likely at this point. He was a very early supporter of Ige, and his lack of committee leadership would allow for an easier transition into the administration requiring minimal shuffle in the Senate.

Mercado Kim may be hoping for this as well, as Ihara’s successor would likely be a more conservative senator than he, especially when it comes to campaign finance reform and good government issues. Though it’s mere speculation at this point, we could see Representative Scott Nishimoto as a likely choice to be bumped up as Ihara’s replacement should Ige call him to the cabinet. This would be a mild move to the right, though for good government groups like Common Cause Hawaii, this could be a setback as Nishimoto is less likely to stick his neck out on government reform issues than Ihara is.

New Committees and Conservative Demotions

There are a fair amount of committees that have been renamed and committee responsibilities have shifted around as well. These changes illustrate the shifts in power Mercado Kim was forced to make in order to retain the presidency and are another example of conservative demotions.

The relatively powerful Economic Development, Government Operations and Housing (EGH) committee, which was headed by conservative senator Donovan Dela Cruz, is now the Economic Development and Technology (EDT) committee with Glenn Wakai as chair. Sam Slom will retain his post as vice chair. Dela Cruz, meanwhile, is now the chair of the newly created and ambiguously named Government Operations (GVO) committee, with conservative senator Clarence Nishihara as vice chair.

Part of that re-organization also means that the “Housing” in EGH is now a part of the new Human Services and Housing (HSH) committee headed by Suzanne Chun Oakland (who led the former Human Services committee last Legislature) with Josh Green as her Vice Chair. We think this is a very positive step in terms of coming up with legislation to help with the houseless situation, especially with that leadership in place. (We also like that Higher Education became the Higher Education and the Arts (HEA) committee, though with the same leadership as last Legislature).

Because Glenn Wakai was moved from the old Technology and the Arts (TEC) committee (and those two were split up into the new EDT and HEA respectively) to the new EDT committee, there is no longer a TEC committee.

Nishihara was replaced on the powerful Agriculture (AGL) committee by the liberal Russell Ruderman. It’s possible that after the Maui referendum vote placing a moratorium on GMO production there, liberals in the Senate wanted Mercado Kim to move the AGL committee away from Agribusiness money, and from the GMO issue in general. It’s no secret that Nishihara takes a large amount of money from chemical companies and the Agribusiness sector each election cycle, while Ruderman is much more willing to stand up to those companies when it comes to AGL issues.

Not only did Nishihara lose control of the powerful AGL committee, but the former Transportation and International Affairs (TIA) committee (which he would have inherited) was stripped of its “International Affairs” purview and is now simply the Transportation Committee (TRA). “International Affairs” is now part of the Tourism and International Affairs (TSI) committee, headed by Gilbert Kahele and J. Kalani English, both in leadership positions this Legislature.

On the whole we think these committee changes make a lot of sense in terms of clarifying the purposes of these committees and aligning them with the goals of a more liberal Senate. On the whole, we also approve of the leadership promotions and demotions and are hopeful we will see some good bills pass the Senate this year.

Early Expectations

Tokuda is an interesting choice for the powerful WAM committee. Though she is probably more fiscally conservative than Ige was as WAM chair last Legislature, she worked closely with the fiscally liberal Governor Abercrombie on issues like Early Childhood Education while chairing the Education (EDU) committee last Legislature. That being said, she did lose her leadership position as Whip.

Budget issues will probably be easier to resolve this Legislature. Representative Sylva Luke, who served as chair of the House Finance (FIN) committee (Ige’s counterpart in the lower house) was more fiscally conservative than Ige was, and Abercrombie was the least fiscally conservative of all. Now we will have a governor that is more conservative than previously, and a WAM chair that is more conservative than he. Assuming Sylvia Luke retains her position as chair of FIN (which we expect she will), they’ll all be in the same state of mind when it comes to the budget. Tokuda’s pairing with the conservative Kouchi means things will likely go smoother in the budgeting process, which (despite their conservatism) could be good for dilapidated buildings at a certain flagship university campus.

Having the liberal Ruderman on AGL in combination with the liberal Thielen on WTL will definitely lead to some better land use policy bills and food security bills coming out of the Senate. Of course, whether they pass in the conservative House is another question.

In the powerful Judiciary and Labor (JDL) committee, moderate Gilbert Keith-Agaran has replaced moderate Clayton Hee (who’s term expired, and who unsuccessfully ran for Lt. Governor in the primary but lost to incumbent Shan Tsutsui). Keith-Agaran bring lots of experience and smarts to the position. He’s been in government for a long time, having served in the Cayetano cabinet and as a former House Judiciary (JUD) chair.

He seems much more friendly and approachable than Hee was (particularly to journalists), but might be less likely to stick his neck out, preferring to think strategically rather than take a hard stance on idealistic (and unpopular) issues like government transparency. When he was JUD chair, he was approached by Barbara Polk (board member of Common Cause Hawaii) and other good government proponents, asking him to push good government bills through his committee and on the floor. He claimed he didn’t have the votes to do so, and held two bills back that Polk and Common Cause really wanted.

Keith-Agaran will probably do much better on issues such as campaign finance reform, which Hee was not a champion of. Keith-Agaran will probably also work much better with Karl Rhoads, again, assuming Rhoads retains chairmanship of the JUD (which we think he will).

An Unknown Factor

Breene Harimoto is an unknown factor for us. Having been elected to the Honolulu City Council unopposed, he likewise slipped into the State Senate with no opposition. Because he’s never had to campaign or debate or fight, it’s a little tough to place him. What we do know about him comes from his votes on the Honolulu Council, where he was often a lone or near-lone dissenter on (bad) council policy on issues like Houselessness. At the Senate level, however, he’s an unknown factor. How will he vote on issues affecting the whole state, such as education or transportation, the two committees he has been assigned to as vice chair?