Joe Souki is always a lively interview. Sitting in his home office in Wailuku, the longtime Maui member of the state House of Representatives shared some of his views on the year just past and the year ahead.
Souki, who was first elected in 1982, rose to become speaker of the Hawai'i House of Representatives, then lost the post to rival Calvin Say in 1999. After a 14-year hiatus, he mustered the necessary votes to regain the leadership post in 2013.
A lifelong Democrat, Souki represents the 8th State House District that includes Wailuku, Waihe'e and Waikapu.
State House Speaker Joe Souki plans to run again, and said he already has the votes to retain the speaker’s post.
For starters, "yes," he plans to run again, and insurance executive Leonard Oka will chair his campaign, and "yes," he already has the votes to retain the speaker's post.
Though he would not go as far as to say some of his best friends are Republicans, "They're more like colleagues," he said in response to that question. He did think that his speakership--achieved with the active participation of Hawai'i's minority party--had worked out well, commenting, "I was appreciative of their support."
Comparing his first go-round in the top job with the present incarnation, he observed, "The cast is different. The people this time are younger and they are more liberal. The power has shifted from the majority in the middle and leaning to the right. Now, the majority is in the middle and leaning to the left. I enjoy working with them, and I find their ideas and enthusiasm refreshing."
As for the changes in his own point of view--the biggest one was the change in his position on "marriage equality." Souki, a staunch Catholic, had in the past opposed efforts to legalize same-gender marriages, but voted with the majority in the recent special session to make such unions legal in Hawai'i.
He said he found the testimony persuasive, and that personal experiences drawn from his own life and circle of friends and relatives had helped to change his mind on the controversial subject. He used the phrase, "No regrets."
In his view, the marriage equality is a civil--not a religious--matter. "It has nothing to do with God," he said.
He also pointed out that the language of the new law provides exceptions for those who do not wish to participate in same-sex unions.
On the political side, he's not certain that all the repercussions from the landmark legislation have been felt yet.
"We'll have to wait and see," he said, acknowledging that there is the "potential for payback on both sides of the issue. We won't know how it plays out until after the election."
The second part of the biennium begins when the Legislature reconvenes on Wednesday, Jan. 15, in Honolulu.
"That will be about money, money, money," he said, poking the air with his finger for emphasis.
Souki said the people who come to his office want to talk about schools, agriculture, early childhood education, health, retirement, taxing the Internet, medical marijuana and many other issues--all with a financial component.
One subject he repeatedly mentioned as one of his top concerns was Hawai'i's "unfunded liability." That is, the state's lack of sufficient reserves to meet all its obligations--especially public employee pensions. He was proud that progress had been made in that area.
"Even if it is slow" [it's expected to take another 28 years], "at least it's shrinking," he said.
He was also interested, but cautious, about the governor's desire to pass legislation and funding for universal pre-school, pointing out it was already a big-ticket item with the potential to grow even larger.
"It's a subject with lots of financial unknowns," he said.
Souki also thinks that the counties may just have a shot at negotiating a better share of Transient Accommodation Tax (TAT) revenues. But beyond that, he wasn't willing to speculate.
"If I tell you everything, what will be left for opening day?" he asked.
Two things you won't be hearing from Joe Souki this year are his perennial favorite subjects--legalized marijuana and gambling. Though others might introduce measures, he thinks he'll pass on both of them.
As for what transpired overall that he thought was good for Maui, he ticked off the opening of a portion of the Lahaina Bypass, money for Kahului Airport (which he estimated could be as much as a half-billion dollars), state funds for the acquisition of land at Honolua in West Maui and the appropriation for building the new Kihei High School.
He was also enthusiastic about the Maui County Council's recent decision to acquire land in Launiupoko.
"No matter what the cost," he said, "the intrinsic value of that land is forever. It was the right thing to do."
Asked to name the person he most admired this year from any walk of life, he thought for a moment and responded, "The Pope. Who am I to judge? That says it all."