Updated 3/01/11 3:45 p.m.

A showdown Tuesday over the size of gifts lawmakers and state employees may accept ended with a compromise.

First, a proposal by Democratic Sen. Brickwood Galuteria to dramatically weaken rules on gifts was rejected.

However the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to try to write an exemption for charitable organizations that would allow lawmakers to attend their events as a gift. It was an opinion from the Hawaii State Ethics Commission that lawmakers could not accept tickets to a fundraiser that prompted Galuteria to act.

The bill, SB 671, SD 1 would have gutted rules governing gifts to lawmakers, allowing politicians to accept more free stuff without reporting it.

The Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee voted unanimously to defeat the bill and pushed forward a much narrower version opening the door to addressing the concerns of nonprofits.

“We will eviscerate all sections of the SD 1 with the exception of section 84-13 as recommended by the executive director of the Ethics Commission,” said Sen. Clayton Hee, the committee’s chair.

Written testimony from Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo against the bill was blistering. He pointed out that if passed, “SD 1 would allow a legislator and state employee to accept any gift, under any circumstances, and from any source, so long as the value of the gift does not exceed $200.”

Les Kondo’s Verbal Testimony to the Judiciary Committee

Update

A Civil Beat article published before the hearing noted that had the bill passed, lawmakers could have accepted unlimited food and beverage gifts, single gifts of up to $200 from multiple entities or people regardless if the gift was intended to influence the legislator, and substantial travel opportunities not currently available.

SD 1 was proposed after a dispute between the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs (HIPA) and the ethics commission. The bill from Galuteria came after the commission told Senate President Shan Tsutsui that lawmakers could not accept gifts of $200-per-person tickets to a Feb. 24 HIPA fundraiser.

HIPA claimed that by not allowing legislators to accept the tickets, attendance at its event would drop significantly and in turn, so would revenue generated by the fundraiser. HIPA President William Kaneko, who led the transition effort for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, testified in support of the bill.

William Kaneko Gives Testimony and Responds to Questions

Update

As did Norm Baker with Aloha United Way, who said he represents about 290 local nonprofits that regularly invite legislators and government officials to events.

“Up until a week ago, that was completely ethical,” Baker said. “A week ago, it became unethical. When fair minded people make judgments about a situation, about a rule, about a set of guidelines, and the judgment changes overnight, to me, is very clear that the rules and the guidelines are not very clear… It makes it impossible for well-minded people like the nonprofits and Mr. Kondo to conduct business.”

Baker supported the intent of the bill, which would have made gift laws more explicit, clearly indentifying that legislators could accept food and beverages as well as pricey gifts.

Kondo addressed the concerns of Aloha United Way as well as HIPA in his testimony. He said there are several charitable organizations in Hawaii that provide a substantial service to the state and that legislators should be able to attend specific events.

Off the cuff, in verbal testimony, Kondo advised the committee to revise Hawaii Revised Statute 84-13 to insert language that would address the concerns of charitable nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations that hold events relevant to lawmakers.

He said there were some cases where lawmakers should be able to attend charitable events without necessarily having to pay for them.

The committee passed a new SD 1, tasking the Ethics Commission and lawmakers to work on language for the new section. The commission will meet March 16 to review the proposed amendment.

SD 1 already was a drastic revision of an ethics bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Les Ihara and Republican Sen. Sam Slom. That bill would have tightened ethics laws, making it more difficult for lawmakers to, among other things, accept gifts.

Galuteria gutted that bill and introduced his version Friday, setting the stage for Tuesday’s hearing.

Several groups other than the Ethics Commission were opposed to Galuteria’s amendment. The League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Americans for Democratic Action and the Chamber of Commerce all expressed reservations.

The Americans for Democratic Action representative (who did not state her name to the committee) asked what may have been the vital question, which was echoed in other testimony:

“Frankly, why can’t legislators pay for these tickets on their own?”