HONOLULU — Of nearly 400 bills the Hawaii House sent the Senate this year, only five were introduced by Republicans. And the party’s minority caucus package of bills was shut out entirely.
The dismal numbers underscore the futility Republicans find in the lopsided state Legislature. Democrats outnumber them 44 to seven in the House and 24 to one in the Senate.
“It’s the biggest hurdle to get a Republican package bill through the House,” said Rep. Beth Fukumoto, R-Mililani and Mililani Mauka, the minority floor leader. “There were some bills that got hearings, which is unusual in and of itself.”
The bills in that package didn’t exactly mirror Republican ideas that Democrats normally love to oppose. House Bill 1983 would have created a silver alert system, described in the bill as a sort of amber alert for older people with mental impairments who go missing. House Bill 1820 would have required that community navigators who help people sort through plans on the Hawaii health insurance exchange get licensed. House Bill 1819 provided money for mental health services for at-risk teenagers.
All died in committee before they could reach the floor for a vote.
“These are common sense, practical things,” Sen. Sam Slom, R-Kalama Valley and Hawaii Kai, said of the doomed package. “It’s always interesting to me when the majority party cries for bipartisanship. It’s always a one-way street. It’s always for the minority party to vote for majority packages. But it doesn’t work the other way.”
The Republican bills that did emerge from the House likewise read as middle-of-the-road policy. For instance, Rep. Cynthia Thielen’s House Bill 14, held over from 2013, would make kindergarten mandatory. It’s waiting to be scheduled in the Senate Education committee. Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson’s House Bill 2496 amends the appointment procedures for Hawaii Labor Relations Board.
Fukumoto’s House Bill 2370 changed the proportion in which partial payment of taxes apply to interest, penalties and principal. “It’s a pretty benign bill compared to some of the things we pass here,” she said. It squeaked through the House, 25-24.
Hawaii Republicans face the same long odds as opposition parties in other uneven state legislatures, said Neal Milner, a University of Hawaii political science professor emeritus. What makes Hawaii especially harsh on its minority party, he said, are the relative discipline by the Democrats and a lack of a strong tea party or evangelical Christian base for Republicans to leverage.
“The Republican Party generally does not operate here as a loud, corrosive gadfly — let’s call it mainland right-wing manner,” Milner said. “There isn’t the kind of spin machine or a right-wing media that is constantly churning out things. There isn’t really an infrastructure here to generate that sort of opposition at all times. These folks in the Legislature are really out there alone.”
Fukumoto said House Republicans have taken to building coalitions and behaving civilly as a matter of practice.
Given their few options, Milner said, playing nice might be the most effective course for Republicans in the state legislature.
“You’ve got the put the choice in context,” he said. “How can you act as a party of no when you have so few people to say no?”