Joseph Souki, Maui's 16-term member of the State House Representatives, is the longest-serving person in the Maui political landscape. He is a Democrat who represents the 8th House District, including Kahakuloa, Waihe'e, Waiehu, Pu'uohala, Wailuku, Waikapu and portions of Kahului.
Souki got his start as one of Maui's elected delegates to the 1978 Hawai'i State Constitutional Convention and never looked back. Now at age 80-plus, he is once again Speaker of the House.
In 2012, the first time that he ran unopposed, he used the time to put together a bipartisan coalition of House members who gave him enough votes to recapture the top spot, ousting his longtime rival, former Speaker Rep. Calvin Say.
State House Speaker Joseph Souki represents Maui’s 8th House District, including Kahakuloa, Waihe‘e, Waiehu, Pu‘uohala, Wailuku, Waikapū and portions of Kahului.
Souki held the Speaker's job once before but lost it to Say. Post-coup, Souki's future looked bleak as he found himself in the political bone yard of state politics. His return to leadership made him arguably one of the state's most influential and powerful political figures, and a man who can and does do a lot--not just for his own district but all of Maui County.
As he sits at the dining room table of his comfortable home in Wailuku wearing a Maui County Fair T-shirt and casual slacks, he's barefoot and relaxed. He drinks his coffee and munches on some pastry. He doesn't look the part of a high-powered political operative, except the phone never stops ringing, the fax is churning out paper and all around him are clippings, notes and reports--the signs that at an age when most men are retired, this man is charging full speed ahead.
Minimum Wage Increase and Turtle Bay
Asked to comment on the recently concluded session of the Hawai'i State Legislature, where a budget of $12.1 billion was approved for the 2015 Fiscal Year (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015), Souki named Turtle Bay land and the passage of an increased minimum wage as two of the biggest accomplishments of the year.
The minimum wage legislation will increase Hawai'i base pay to $10.10 per hour in increments over the next four years.
At Turtle Bay on O'ahu, the state was able to secure an easement to 655 acres of private land, which will keep one of the last undeveloped areas along the North Shore in open space in perpetuity. Souki said that the possibility of an agreement between the landowners and the state came up very late in the session and it required some fancy financial rearranging to find the money to make the opportunity a reality.
Disappointments: TAT Funding for the Counties & Hospital Legislation
From his point of view, the biggest disappointment was that though the cap on the Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT) was raised, it was not increased as much as he had desired, and the counties still are not receiving what he thinks is their fair share of these substantial revenues.
"We got more," he said, "but not to the degree that we had hoped."
The TAT is a tax on hotel and vacation rentals. The proceeds of that tax go to the state's general fund, and only a portion is returned to the counties that generate the money in the first place.
Another disappointment was that legislation died in conference that would have allowed hospitals in the Hawai'i State Health System (including Maui Memorial Medical Center) to begin to partner with other health systems inside and outside the state. However, a taskforce to continue to look into the feasibility did pass.
Maui's CIP $536 million in new appropriations for FY 2015
As for what was the best for Maui County, it's hard to find fault with a hefty $536 million in new state Capital Improvement Project (CIP) appropriations earmarked for everything from road improvements to grants-in-aid to nonprofit organizations on Maui, Molokai and Lana'i. (See "The Big Ticket Items" sidebar of major CIP appropriations, and the state's "Complete Maui CIP Appropriation List" and "State Legislature's Final Budget" PDFs.)
Though having an appropriation does not guarantee the governor will release the money, it's certainly a major step in that direction.
South Maui received two of the largest appropriations in the budget: $130 million that will allow the new Kihei high school to be bid and built at one time and $70 million for the state's portion of matching funds needed to finally begin work on the Kihei to Upcountry highway. Both of these projects have been discussed for decades but were not previously funded.
"Whatever we can get for Maui, it's all good," Souki said.
Though the new spending earmarked for Maui is sweet, the old money worries remain with the state. Souki said the "unfunded liability" on pension funds for state workers is still a topic of major financial concern. Some $500 million a year annually for the next 30 years is set aside to deal with this problem.
Council on Revenues Lowers Hawai'i's Growth Projections
Though Souki was generally pleased with the financial outcome of the 2014 session, he took pains to point out that there were some major revisions along the way. When the session opened, legislators believed that the state was looking at a potential $840 million surplus. The governor's budget was made with that figure in mind.
But when the Council on Revenues (the body that sets the guidelines for state spending) met, they dramatically revised the figure downward to $268 million, removing more than $500 million from the budget.
The council also revised the state's projected growth rate downward to a tenth of one percent (.1 percent). "That was a big adjustment," Souki said. "Those were huge cuts. We had to really scramble to revise the numbers and make them work."
Issues: Maui's Airport, the Environment and Homeless
Reviewing at a long list of issues that face the state and county, Souki named the improvement and expansion of the Kahului Airport, protection of the environment and solutions to Hawai'i's ongoing homeless problems as three of his top concerns.
On the airport, he mentioned funds for the access road, improvements to the runway and building a new car rental facility as projects that all received funding in the session.
Speaking about the environment, he pointed to legislation for new inspectors designed to curb the spread of invasive species and $20 million in state funds to acquire Lipoa Point at Honolua Bay in West Maui (funded in the 2013 session) as two recent accomplishments.
Souki did not have a position on the often-heated debate for and against genetically engineered crops and seeds.
"There needs to be more of an exchange of information on both sides," he said, adding that he hopes to see "continued discussion."
He favored expanding local sustainable farming, but had few specifics to add in this area. He did point out, however, that for all the claims made for industrial hemp, "it's a crop that uses a great deal of water."
He identified himself as a person with "deep roots in the plantation," saying he hoped to see HC&S continue. He wondered aloud about what would happen to the company's 800 employees and the 40,000 acres of cultivated lands if sugar were to collapse.
"We're talking about a fragile situation here," he stressed. "The decision to shut down sugar might be out of their [HC&S local management] hands. It might be made for them by a board that isn't here. We've got to realize that could mean dramatic changes for our island and economy if that happens."
As for the homeless situation, he divided his analysis into two sections: what might and could be done for the "working poor" and other actions that would help hardcore homeless with substance abuse and mental illness issues.
"Each year, the homeless situation gets more pressing," he said, "but each year it competes with so many other needs for funding."
Philosophically, Souki seems to be the last of the LBJ Great Society Democrats, a liberal on social issues and a conservative on fiscal matters. His own soft spot is for "the most vulnerable among us. People who need a break."
Again he attributed this attitude to being raised in a plantation setting where, in his words, "People had nothing--no housing, no healthcare and no opportunity. Those are the people we need to look out for... the 'have-nots.'"
Turning to his own race, Souki said that he has a Republican opponent, and there are also those in the evangelical wing of the Christian community who are not happy that he voted with the majority last year in favor of "marriage equality." There are some who see this election as "payback time." He said that he and other lawmakers are targeted, but thinks the decision has ultimately been made and sustained by the court.
Asked who he sees as the next generation of leaders, Souki mentioned U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, presently running for re-election.
"Win or lose, he has a future."
He also was favorably inclined towards Shan Tsutsui, a Mauian running for re-election as lieutenant governor.
Souki sees the new crop of candidates as being less affiliated with party and more interested in issues. Surprisingly, he thought that O'ahu Republican Charles Djou had a good chance to take the U.S. House seat, and was not at all pleased with that prospect. He said that recent polls showed Djou with a five-point lead.
As for himself and his legendary memory, he agreed: "I do have a long memory. Most politicians do, but I also work to bring our caucus together--even the people who don't agree with me."
Asked his view on term limits, Souki responded, "We already have them. You win you stay. You lose you go home."
See the "Observations of a Souki Watcher" "Connect the Dots" opinion column by Halas here: www.mauiweekly.com/page/content.detail/id/532479/Observations-of-a-Souki-Watcher.html?nav=11 .