Maui’s Souki takes gavel for 12th time as House speaker

Hospital transfer, right to die, crowded roads and prisons all part of address

Joe Souki

Joe Souki

Presiding over his 12th opening session as House speaker, Joe Souki of Maui urged his fellow lawmakers Wednesday to press for needed changes against the push back of the status quo, citing the public-private partnership for Maui County public hospitals, traffic gridlock on Oahu and the right to die.

“We in Hawaii have a strong and compelling sense of place that shapes who we are,” said Souki on the opening day of the 2017 Legislature. “We all share this overarching sense of place — whether you were born and raised here or chose it for your adopted home. . . .

“And when change comes to this place — as it must — we begrudgingly accept it, but only after making sure that it is in the best interest of Hawaii.”

Change was needed for Maui Memorial Medical Center and Kula and Lanai Community hospitals, quasi-public facilities that after July 1 will be run by the private Kaiser Permanente, he said.

“When we could no longer afford to deliver health care on Maui the way we used to, we understandably pushed back because we are protective of others who may be affected by change,” he told fellow lawmakers. “But we needed to find a better way of change. And we did.”

Gov. David Ige has put $9.5 million in his budget proposal to complete the transfer, but county lawmakers have said that the actual shortfall may be as high as $13 million.

On transportation issues facing Oahu, Souki offered his support for the controversial and over budget rail system as “the key to the future of Oahu.” The speaker wants to remove the sunset date on the original general excise tax financing bill and to reduce administrative costs from 10 to 5 percent.

He also proposed a feasibility study to see if elevated toll roads would make sense for Honolulu. The road would be privately owned and funded by users, such as trucking companies and tour buses. Such a toll road would move vehicles more quickly and reduce the load on public streets.

When asked Wednesday afternoon about the possibility of toll roads for Maui, Souki said he didn’t think that would be feasible because there isn’t enough traffic to support them. He’s not sure a Maui toll road would attract a private investor.

Former Maui Mayor Hannibal Tavares many years ago proposed building a new Upcountry-South Maui highway and making it a toll road to help pay for it. That proposal never garnered enough support to reach fruition.

The state has since picked up on the Upcountry-South Maui roadway and has a route from Haliimaile to the Research & Technology Park selected but plans have been put on the back burner due to reduced federal funding for highways and revenues from the gas tax and vehicle weight and registration fees.

The state Transportation Department has said that funds will be used for repairing and maintaining current roads — and not building new ones.

Souki did not totally shutdown the idea, pointing out that the state will likely not receive more federal funds for highways given the current presidential administration and Congress.

“It’s a possibility,” the speaker said of a toll road for Maui, but not something he could offer up this session, given his already proposed study for the Oahu elevated toll road.

His call for discussion on the issue of allowing compassionate care or the right to die with dignity appeared to be more personal. Souki said that his longtime friend, lobbyist John Radcliffe, was sitting in the well of the House as he gave his address; Radcliffe has inoperable colon cancer and is terminally ill.

“I don’t know how long the good lord is going to keep him in this world,” Souki said Wednesday afternoon, adding that Radcliffe has called for a right to die measure.

“I have a lot of people who call who want that,” he continued. “I am doing that for them because they are close to me. I am doing this for society as a whole.”

Souki told his fellow House members that “those who are suffering from a terminal illness and are of sound mind should be given the opportunity to decide how they will end their own lives.”

The speaker added that the measure also would relieve doctors of the risk of criminal charges and loss of license.

Souki, 83, said he would like the option for himself.

“I am not sure I will have the courage to make the decision when it comes,” he said. “Who knows if at the end I have an illness that is terribly painful.”

The speaker also touched on the overcrowding of state prisons with no new prison in sight for at least 10 years. He offered solutions such as a law passed last year that allows the prison director to release some types of low-level nonviolent inmates and proposing to confine pretrial detainees for misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes to their homes and monitoring them by electronic bracelets.

“What I’m talking about is creating a whole new level of noninstitutionalized incarceration,” he said in his address.

In the interview Wednesday afternoon after giving his speech which ended in a standing ovation, Souki reflected some on his 35 years in the House and his 12th year as speaker. Elected to the House in 1982, he rose through the ranks, chairing the powerful Finance Committee before ascending to speaker in 1993. He was unseated as speaker by Calvin Say in 2000 but regained the speakership in 2013, ousting Say.

Souki pointed to Majority Leader Scott Saiki’s call for compromise and reconciliation in his address to the House.

“That is a good direction,” Souki said, noting that Saiki; Sylvia Luke, current chairwoman of the Finance Committee; and him work “fairly well together” but “have differences.”

He has urged his colleagues to forgo grudges.

“You need to forget who your enemies are because your enemies can be your friend,” Souki said.

He recalled members coming up to him and apologizing for not supporting him when he was ousted as speaker. “I have forgiven you for that,” he told the lawmakers.

“Winners can be very kind and gracious,” Souki said. “I have been on the losing side, too. I get a few scars to carry around.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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