Souki says one time in ’82, as freshman, he was ready to quit

House Speaker Joe Souki almost quit after his first term as a lawmaker in 1982.

“Back then as a freshman, you were meant to be seen and not heard, you know, you were put in the corner,” the 80-year-old Maui native said in a recent interview with The Maui News.

Souki said he felt so insignificant as a first-year lawmaker that he wanted to quit and return to his real estate business on Maui, which, he noted, paid more.

But he returned for a second term on the advice of his mother. Now, 31 years later, Souki is sitting in the speaker’s seat, again. He held the post from 1993 to 1998, then he was unseated by Speaker Emeritus Calvin Say in 1999.

This session, he reclaimed the House’s top leadership post from his colleague by making an agreement with the House’s seven Republicans. In exchange for their support, Republicans were appointed vice chairmen of three key committees – House Finance, Energy and Economic Development.

“I felt I had some things I still needed to do as speaker, so I went against my old friend Calvin Say,” said Souki, who as speaker had appointed Say as chairman of the Finance Committee in 1993. “It was nothing personal, I just felt I needed to break that deadlock to allow more changes so new people could have opportunities.”

Those “new people” included not only the 25 former Democrat dissidents who were unhappy with Say’s leadership, but also the first-year representatives and Republicans, who had not had much influence in previous years under Say’s rule.

“This session, Speaker Joe did a fantastic job in creating synergy between all of us,” West Maui state Rep. Angus McKelvey said after session adjourned. “The Republicans were involved as well, the coalition was strong, and it was a great session.”

Despite the chamber’s “tumultuous reorganization” at the start of this year’s legislative session, the speaker said things at the House were going well.

“The goal was to bring the House together,” Souki said. “When I ran for speaker, the House was divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ I tried to make everybody the ‘haves.'”

Souki’s leadership approach – transparency, collaboration and open discussion – seems to have paid off this session, which ended May 2. More than 100 bills were passed, including a $2.38 billion biennium budget that now sits on Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s desk for final approval.

For the first time in as long as Souki can remember, both chambers voted unanimously to pass the proposed budget. While lawmakers remember staying as late as 3 a.m. in years past trying to hammer out final details, this year, the House Finance Committee, headed by Rep. Sylvia Luke, finished its proposal three days ahead of an internal deadline, which had also never been done before, Souki said.

The budget included $217 million dedicated over the next two years toward the state’s looming unfunded liabilities problem, $160 million into the hurricane relief fund, and $50 million set aside for federally funded programs that may sustain cutbacks from sequestration measures.

For Maui, the budget appropriated nearly $300 million in capital improvement projects for the county, including $20 million for the purchase and preservation of Lipoa Point and $130 million for the full funding of a Kihei high school.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to increase the tax credit for the film industry from 20 percent to 25 percent for Neighbor Islands.

“The film industry is a burgeoning industry that brings in a lot of money,” Souki said. “And, equally important, it gives us international advertising.”

One of the main highlights of the legislative session is the repeal of the controversial Public Land and Development Corp., which passed the Legislature in 2011 and has been a focus of public protest ever since. The PLDC was created to raise state revenue by developing state land through private-public partnerships, but many community organizations were outraged with the agency’s ability to override county zoning and permitting laws.

“We wanted to send a message to the public that we are listening to them,” said Souki of the House’s unanimous vote to repeal the PLDC.

House members are also listening to the nine freshmen lawmakers, Souki said, including Maui Reps. Kaniela Ing and Justin Woodson. Both Ing and Woodson were assigned to the Finance Committee, one of the most important committees in Legislature.

“Speaker has been extremely helpful. He demonstrated a new type of leadership that I learned a lot from,” said Ing, who represents South Maui, after the session adjourned. “He is hands-off and gave the chairs the autonomy to cross their own legislation.”

Although the legislative session is finished, lawmakers know there is still much work to do in the interim. For Souki, that means focusing on continued efforts to bring down the state’s unfunded liabilities burden and finding a way to lower personal income tax rates.

A bill that proposed to lower the personal income tax from 11 percent to 8 percent cleared the House but died in the Senate. Souki said he hopes to reintroduce a version of the bill next session.

On the last day of the session, the House added four more members – former Say loyalists – to leadership posts, a move that raised eyebrows. The House also appointed the speaker emeritus, who sat out on the process this session, to committees on Water and Land.

“We all know what it’s like to be down, excluded,” Souki said. “I remember when I lost my speakership, I was hurt . . . I empathize with him (Say), that’s why I continually try to bring him in.”

Souki said that while his style of leadership differs from that of Say’s “iron fist,” he still respects the speaker emeritus as a colleague, always making sure to address him as “speaker.”

“Once you have the opportunity to be speaker, you’re speaker forever,” he said.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at