By Susan Halas
Joseph M. (Joe) Souki (D) is a 15 term veteran of the Hawaii State House representing the 8th House district which includes Kahakuloa, Waihee, portions of Wailuku and Waikapu. The St. Anthony High School graduate began his career as an administrator for Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO) in 1966 where he was known as an advocate for seniors and low income Mauians.
A lifelong Democrat he entered politics in 1978 when he won a seat as Maui delegate to the Hawaii Constitutional Convention. In 1982 he was elected State House and rose to become Speaker of the House. Almost 30 years later he is Speaker Emeritus, member of the House Democratic Leadership Caucus and chairs the House Transportation Committee.
Now at 78 Souki has served Maui under five governors (Ariyoshi, Waihee, Cayetano, Lingle, Abercrombie) and has had a front row seat in state government and politics for almost 30 years. He plans to seek reelection in 2012.
On Friday he sat down with Maui Now to review the 2011 legislative session and look ahead to next year at the State Capitol and the upcoming 2012 elections.
Hawaii 2011-2012: “It’s About Money”
If there’s one word that comes up in a conversation with Rep. Joe Souki it’s “money” or lack of it.
“We’ve tapped every fund, the rainy fund, the hurricane fund; we’ve cut every cut. There’s nothing left: Nothing. Zip. Zero.” Even after Governor Abecrombie refinanced Hawaii state bonds with savings estimated in the $300 million range “we’ll be lucky if we break even.”
Souki said he would prefer this money be put toward restoring Medicaid reimbursements and replenishing the depleted emergency funds. But even with the savings: “These are really tough times and the need for new sources of revenue is urgent.”
Souki characterized the posture of the 2011 session as “defensive,” and his own position as trying to “ward off cuts to the under-served: human services, seniors, young people, health care.”
“Where do you want to cut? What’s left to cut? We just barely averted shutting down Hale Makua (a Maui facility which provides long term care to the elderly). It was a skin of the teeth thing. As Medicaid reimbursements are reduced every one of those beds costs us more money than it brings in.”
He pointed out that Hawaii is the only place in America where schools are under the complete jurisdiction and financing of the state government, and where “30% of our budget, right off the top goes to (K -12) education.” According to Souki, state staffing has been reduced by an estimated 60% in cumulative cuts made in the last six years.
While money was the main focus at the legislature in 2011 he noted that the Hawaii Legislature passed the much debated Civil Unions bill by a wide margin. The measure, which allows the Department of Health to issue a license to establish a civil union, stops short of recognizing same-sex marriage. However it does authorize rights and benefits to gay partners that are equal to those enjoyed by married couples.
How that will play next year at the polls remains to be seen. However it goes, Souki thinks the whole argument over gay rights is “passé.”
“There might have been a day when you could argue against it,” he said, “but that day has passed. Society is changing. It’s accepted all around. To be against it is a losing battle.”
His own kuleana is as powerful chair of the House Transportation Committee. Currently he says the state budget has $2 billion earmarked for airports, $600 million for harbors and $700 million for highways. How much of that the governor will actually release or what portion will find its way to Maui he could not say.
He also pointed out that the change of administrations in the 2010 election resulted in a “change in priorities” and “that set back schedule for everything by about a year” so that projects that were supposed to start in 2011 won’t get underway until 2012 and that those scheduled for 2012 may not begin until 2013 or even later.
Coming in 2012? Legalized Gambling and Liberalized Marijuana Laws
Souki said that the 2012 legislative session which begins in January will again be about money, but the tone might be “even more conservative” because it’s an election year where every seat in the 51 member State House and 25 seat State Senate up for a vote. “It’s unlikely you’ll see anything controversial,” he said.
Then, in the next breath he added that he plans to offer a state constitutional amendment asking voters if they want to legalize gambling (Hawaii and Utah are the only two states that do not currently allow any form of gaming). Also he said, “There will definitely be measures introduced to liberalize the marijuana laws.”
“I would support both,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they will pass.”
Incumbents and candidates for state office still do not know the exact district lines that will be used in 2012 because reapportionment is not yet complete, and even when complete may face legal challenges.
No matter which way the reapportionment goes it is virtually certain that the Democrats will still be in the majority as currently there are only nine Republicans in the House and only one in the Senate. Even so, the way that reapportionment plays-out “could affect the leadership” Souki said, because some members who are now in separate districts will likely face each other when the new lines are drawn.
Election Predictions for 2012
Asked for his predictions for next November, Souki’s crystal ball sees: Obama as President, Mufi Hannemann in the US House representing the neighbor islands, himself going back to the State House, and some interesting contested races on Maui.
Because of term limits, Maui Council Member Joe Pontanilla will not be running again, leaving an open seat that is sure to attract many hopefuls for the office. Likewise term limits will sideline Council Chair Danny Mateo of Molokai, who is rumored to be interested in a State Senate seat.