Legislature’s Opening Drama

Larry Price
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Wednesday - January 26, 2011
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I’ve experienced many opening days at the Legislature over the years, and this one was nothing special, except that the House of Representatives started the day without its speaker. That doesn’t happen often, so there was a little drama to contend with.

A Democratic power struggle had left Democrat Rep. Calvin Say lacking enough support to continue as Speaker of the House after 11 years in the job. To his credit, he didn’t accept an offer from House Republicans to back his leadership and held out for a consensus among the House’s 43 Democrats. The problem was the opposition included 17 Democrats who are generally younger and more liberal than Say’s more conservative faction of 25 Democrats. But, in the end, he prevailed and held onto his leadership position.

After all of the efforts to knock the opening invocation off the agenda, they had a traditional Hawaiian pule and everyone seemed pleased, although some of the suggestions for a collaborative effort this session seemed to fall on deaf ears. On the Senate side, there was an impressive collection of former governors and judiciary big wigs - even former Gov. Linda Lingle was in attendance.

All of the day’s speakers were optimistic about the future and pledged they would be more transparent to the voters who put them in office. At this point, the Legislature is in a developmental stage, which will be followed by a structural period, followed by a recognizable process. A majority of the pundits would lead you to believe that the public unions will have to do a lot of lobbying to hang onto their hard-fought benefits. Two popular themes floating around the Big Square Building on Beretania Street have to do with raising the General Excise Tax (GET) and limiting retirement benefits to public union employees.

It’s interesting to note that the people who call many of the shots at the Legislature were not easily picked out of the crowd of well-wishers. It might be safe to say that there were more people with “wish lists” at the legislative opening than speakers making wishes.

It’s a good bet that the unions will be fighting for their lives this session. The reason is employers and labor unions are governed differently, unbeknownst to most. Employees are hired to perform tasks to accomplish employer-defined objectives and have very little to do in defining objectives. High-level managers are present and are monitored by a board of directors, elected by shareholders, or in the case of public agencies, by their elected or appointed boards. Managers are responsible to the constituencies or shareholders or voters. Union goals reflect member interest, but they were not in attendance at this function. It’s just as well, for they would have nothing to applaud. The union leaders must be responsive to members’ interests in order to remain in office.

If you want to observe a functional democracy at work, it’s at one of these legislative openings. It’s a good bet that, by the time the clock struck midnight, the game was in full swing on all five floors.

In the nation’s most lopsided Legislature, the gloves came off. And after the last cheek was kissed and aloha hug was administered, the problem of how to reduce a nearly $800 million deficit was the main topic of conversation on both sides.

One last thing. This is a struggle between new Democrats and seasoned Democrats. The Republicans will have very little to offer besides a few choice one-liners.

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