The Hawaii Legislature is in conference committee mode, the final hurdle for legislation before heading to state House and Senate floor votes on May 3.

Conference committees work out the disagreements between the House and Senate. But once a bill gets to this stage, it can be very hard to follow what’s happening with it.

While there are public hearings for conference committee, they are often short and meaningless — a sort of kabuki dance involving stylized gestures and language. The public is not allowed to testify, and the real decision making is done before senators and representatives sit down at the same table.

As one grizzled veteran of the Capitol told Civil Beat when asked how conference committee works, “Good luck with that one!”

Still, there are ways for citizens to keep track of events and even weigh in on bills of interest.

Welcome to Civil Beat’s User’s Guide to Conference Committee.

Step No. 1: The Definitions

If it isn’t already, the Hawaii State Legislature Website should be a favorite bookmark. It’s the quickest and (usually) most accurate way to find out the status of legislation, to understand terms and deadlines and to reach the people you need to reach.

The site includes a useful link to conference committee Procedures that explains what a “lead chair” or “manager” does, who gets to speak during meetings, how quorum is constituted and what a “CD” is (it stands for “conference draft”).

The website includes a link for Definitions that explain, for example, what “recommittal” means — “the sending of a measure back to the committee which reported it out for further consideration.” There’s also a glossary of acronyms and abbreviations — e.g., “CIP” stands for “capital improvement project,” “DOTAX” means “Department of Taxation,” etc.

Note: A definition for FUBAR is not included, although this acronym accurately describes the final version of some bills.

Step No. 2: The Conferees

The House and Senate will select a chair for conference committee who is often the chair of a committee the bill passed through. Vice chairs are often named as fellow conferees, too, and the total is about four or five.

But not always.

The conferees on House Bill 200, the state budget — i.e., THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT BILL AT THE LEGISLATURE — include all 13 Democrats on Senate Ways and Means (but not Republican Sam Slom) and all 17 members of House Finance, including the three Republicans

Still, most bills only have a handful of conferees, and folks interested in a bill’s progress should get to know who they are. The names are listed near the bottom of a measure’s history, and contact info for all 51 representatives and all 25 senators is readily available.

Let’s say you are interested in that slaughterhouse bill — the one that proposes having the state buy a facility in Campbell Industrial Park.

The chairs for Senate Bill 249 are Sen. Clarence Nishihara and Rep. Clift Tsuji, two very nice men who might even return your phone calls, faxes, letters or emails. (Unless your work for PETA.)

And who the conferees are can offer clues as to a bill’s survival chances.

Take Senate Bill 1458, which sets up a five-year medical marijuana distribution pilot program. Four of the five Senate conferees are also co-authors of the bill, and the fifth is a co-introducer. All five House conferees voted “aye” on the bill as it moved through committee — that bodes well for SB 1458’s passage.

Step No. 3: The Players

With the exception of the chairs, a lot of conferees don’t bother to show up to hearings, or walk in late, sit down for a spell, then get up and leave. That’s because (1) it’s the chairs who controls things anyway — other conferees aren’t even allowed to speak unless a chair lets them — and (2) many members serve on multiple conference committees.

I ran into a House rep late last week who told me, cheerfully, “I’m supposed to be at four different places right now.”

Many conferees also have no idea what’s going on with many bills. I asked a legislator last week if he-she knew what was in this-or-that bill.

“I’m supposed to know …” the legislator began, until I gently reminded him-her of the bill in question, at which point a blank expression on his-her face told me all I needed to know.

It’s the chairs who have the power, especially those who run powerful committees such as House Finance and Senate Judiciary and Labor. Nothing, for example, will happen with the state budget without House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro knowing about it.

Another example: Remember that bill that extends a 5 percent pay cut for members of the legislative, executive and judicial branches? The Senate conferees on House Bill 575 include Clayton Hee as chair and Maile Shimabukuro, Les Ihara, David Ige and Sam Slom.

As of last Thursday, however, House conferees had yet to be named, though the measure was co-authored by movers and shakers like Oshiro, Speaker Calvin Say and Vice Speaker Joey Manahan.

Perhaps the House conferees will be named ASAP and meetings scheduled this week. But there’s talk that many House reps hate this bill because they want their full salary back, even while the state is broke.

(Lawmakers, it should be noted, received a 36 percent pay raise in 2008, raising their annual salaries from $35,900 to $48,708. They also received a legislative allowance increase from $7,500 to $10,200. The Senate president and House speaker rake in even more.)

If HB 575 dies, blame who you will … and the black hole that sometimes is conference committee.

Step. No. 4: The Bills

The Bill Status & Documents link on the Capitol’s website is an invaluable tool, and House and Senate committee staffers and clerks do a terrific job of updating bills as fast as they can.

Consider, for example, what you can learn about Senate Bill 367, a bill that concerns the proposed interisland high voltage electric transmission cable system. The most recent item in the measure’s history as of Friday says SB 367 has a conference committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Click on “Show Committee Reports” and you’ll find that Hawaiian Electric Co. and two state agencies love the bill; that Life of the Land, Friends of Lanai and the Maui County Council do not; and that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Public Utilities Commissions have some thoughts on the matter.

The most recent version of the bill can be viewed by clicking “View all Versions of This Measure.” You’ll want to pick the version listed at the top of the link; underlined stuff is new language, crossed-out sections are, well, crossed out.

You can also sign up for an RSS Feed on the bill or get email alerts to find out as soon as a hearing has been scheduled — and during conference committee, that can happen very quickly.

Bill Status & Documents also has links and search functions to find out if a bill is to be listed on the House or Senate Order of the Day — meaning it’s getting a vote — and “action sheets” that list all the bills in conference.

In spite of all that helpful info, however, it is frustrating to advocates of open government how a bill can be completely rewritten during conference committee, yet the public often does not have time to respond let alone the opportunity to offer testimony.

The House and Senate are also very territorial, and it’s not unheard of for a member of either chamber to deliberately and single-handedly kill somebody’s bill … and to take pleasure in doing so.

Step No. 5: The Resources

Can’t make it to the Capitol in person? Capitol TV broadcasts and rebroadcasts (on Oahu) many floor sessions and committee hearings.

Conference committee hearings aren’t usually televised, but Capitol TV is tentatively scheduled to broadcast live the WAM-FIN hearing on the budget set for Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Hawaii House Democrats (@hihousedems) and the Hawaii Senate (@hawaiisenate) send out tweets on key bills. Here’s an example from the last day of business before the long Easter Holiday:

• @hihousedems: Conferees decide to defer SB1522 regulating large-scale dog breeders. Need to work on enforcement/issues. Want to start fresh next yr..

As well, the House Majority Communications Office has created the Twitter hashtag #wehaveabill.

Another tool: The Hawaii Public Access Room, part of the Legislative Reference Bureau at the Capitol. These people are kind and have more patience than Job.

One other tip: Show up to a conference committee hearing and pay attention to body language. Who’s smiling? Who’s grumpy? Who’s sitting next to whom — and not? And be careful not to accidentally sit in a lobbyist’s chair.

Step. No. 6: The End

The big night is this Friday, April 29, when lawmakers will be working until late in the evening and, possibly, into the early hours of the morning.

Whatever comes out of the process heads to a vote a week from Tuesday and, if necessary, the final day of session — which, happily, falls on Cinco de Mayo. (“Sine die” is Latin for “pau already”.)

Remember, it’s a biennium session. If your bill didn’t make it this year, there is always next year.

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