LIHUE – An unexpected change of leadership in the state Senate earlier this month means Kauai’s legislative delegation will have more influence in Honolulu when lawmakers meet at the start of next year.
On Thursday morning at Duke’s Canoe Club, about 75 people heard the story of state Sen. Ron Kouchi’s ascension to the powerful position of Senate president in the waning days of the session, when 19 of 25 senators voted to oust then-Senate President Donna Mercado Kim.
“One of the ironies of what happened is that as a body, we were very proud of the work we did,” Kouchi said, noting that even though good things were happening in the Legislature, there was a movement to change leadership due to disagreements over committee assignments.
State Reps. Derek Kawakami, Dee Morikawa, and Jimmy Tokioka joined Kouchi as featured guests at the Lihue Business Association breakfast meeting. The four lawmakers provided a legislative recap and answered questions from the public for more than an hour.
The way Kouchi explained it, most people in the Legislature expected that Kim would win her congressional bid and leave the state Senate for Washington D.C., so there were already maneuvers underway to replace her.
When that did not happen, Kouchi said he was approached by a block of senators who put together a coalition that would chair different committee assignments, leading to the reorganization.
Kouchi said his goal wasn’t to be Senate president; it was to assemble a team that was happy with their committee assignments.
“For my style of leadership I’ve always been very collaborative,” Kouchi said. “In my 30 years in government, my strongest ability as a leader is to listen.”
Kouchi said the reorganization was unusual only in that it wasn’t done after an election.
Morikawa, District 16 – Niihau, Lehua, Waimea, Koloa, touted $93 million of Capital Improvement Project funds that were earmarked for Kauai, and pointed out that she was able to secure $10,000 for improvements to the Menehune Ditch.
“I may hold the record for the smallest individual appropriation, but it will have a big effect,” Morikawa said.
Other projects include $2.5 million for solar power at Kauai Community College, which will save energy costs, freeing up funds to be spent in other ways.
Another $2.1 million will be allocated for equipment to provide better communications during an emergency situation, such as a hurricane or tsunami.
One bill that failed to get approved during this session would have continued an exemption on fuel taxes on naphtha that is burned to provide Kauai’s main source of electricity.
The 30 cents per gallon tax is meant to help pay for the cost of transportation infrastructure and roads, but Kauai Island Utility Cooperative has enjoyed an exemption to this tax since the fuel is not used for transportation. Without this exemption, costs will rise by $4.4 million next year and that cost will have to be passed on to customers.
However, Tokioka, District 15 – Wailua Homesteads, Hanamaula, Lihue, Puhi, Old Koloa Town, said he thinks it is likely that this bill will be taken up again early next year, and that it will be successful.
“If we don’t pass an exemption, this tax on fuel goes through and everyone in this room will pay for it,” he said.
Another bill to watch would give the Kauai County Council the option to raise the General Excise Tax by half a percent, and use the additional tax revenue to draw down federal matching funds that can then be used for transportation projects. Gov. David Ige has until July 14 to act on the bill.
Kawakami, District 14 — Hanalei, Princeville, Kilauea, Anahola, Kapaa, Wailua, said he thought there was a good chance the governor would sign the bill because of what it means for Oahu, but it could still impact Kauai
“The AG had an opinion that we had to open it up for all the counties,” he said about the attorney general’s stance on the issue.
Kouchi, District 8 – Kauai, Niihau, said Ige will visit Kauai on June 9 for the Chamber of Commerce’s 17th annual Governor’s Luncheon, and he urged residents to attend so they can tell the governor whether they want him to sign or veto bills he is considering.
Overall, the lawmakers were positive about their ability to work together.
“We’ve got a real solid Kauai team,” Kouchi said. “Now we have more ability to make sure Kauai is not lost in the shuffle.”