Human Casualties at the Legislature
by Tom Yamachika, President, Tax Foundation Hawaii
Our legislature this year has had several casualties. We expect quite a few bills to be tossed aside during the legislative process. However, in recent years we have had more than the average number of human casualties, the most recent being Speaker of the House Joe Souki and Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda.
The casualties in this legislature were not limited to those two. Rep. Beth Fukumoto used to be the House Minority Leader, which made her the ranking Republican in our legislature (our Senate has no Republican members this year). She was deposed and replaced on February 1st. Rep. Angus McKelvey from Maui was chair of the influential House Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, but was shown the door on March 13th in a three-way switcheroo of House committee chairs.
Significant shake-ups occurred in the Senate two years earlier. Senate President Donna Kim was given the boot on May 5, 2015, the last day of the 2015 session. Four days earlier, Senate Health Committee Chair Josh Green was stripped of his chairmanship in the thick of conference committee negotiations over the medical marijuana bill.
These politicians are still alive and well, and they all still hold seats in the current legislature. But it can't be a pleasant experience having a Trump-type "You're fired" resolution with your name on it being discussed and voted on in a large Capitol auditorium with the outcome predetermined.
The question I have is this. If there is a position taken by a committee chair on one bill or one issue that is not reflecting the wishes of the committee, why can't the committee simply reject the chair's recommendation and take the position they need to? Or why can't the body come up with a different position in a floor vote, which is not at all uncommon and was in fact done this year (leading to the second Senate conference draft on the rail bill SB 1183)?
The legislative system is set up so we don't need to expect the chair to be right 100% of the time. In these instances, all of the legislative leaders worked really hard, were familiar with the issues, and came to a reasoned judgment. Everyone went along with the chair 98% of the time. In Chair Tokuda's case, for example, the "unreasonable" position of giving the City no surcharge extension was in Senate Draft 2, which was approved by her committee 8-0 and by the full Senate 25-0. Senate members who want to express concerns or displeasure have the option to vote “Aye with reservations” as well as “No,” but no one did either. And then, of course, literally hundreds of other bills passed through her committee with no visible indication of dissent. To be fair, we can't see what went on in the back rooms, where the committee chairs can quietly kill bills by refusing to schedule a hearing or vote on them. If a committee chair is abusing power or acting despotically, stripping away the position may be appropriate; barring that, the strong committee chair system is designed to give chairs a great deal of discretion, and when that discretion is used to someone’s disadvantage both the system and the person using it bear responsibility. In most places, if you get it right 98% of the time you won't get a pink slip. In our legislature, you can get the ax. It's hard to imagine a more thankless job. Except, maybe, being on the board of directors of a condominium association.
If we want talented people serving us in the halls of our legislature, we can’t get in the habit of switching them around like the Flavor of the Month. We need to figure out a way to treat them with dignity.