Hawaii’s 2011 Reapportionment Commission is meeting this year to redraw political district boundaries for the Hawaii Legislature based on 2010 Census numbers.
It’s a process that could eliminate some districts and change the lines for existing ones — a big issue for Democrats and Republicans.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie, meanwhile, has said the state should consider going back to the multi-member district system it had from the 1950s until the early 1980s. He thinks it results in greater representation the the current single-member system — although the 2011 Reapportionment Commission has for now ruled that out.
But were other recent calls — including a bill introduced in the 2011 Legislature — for Hawaii to consider switching from a bicameral system to a unicameral system.
Here’s one argument as to why less sometimes equals more.
Nebraska, with some 1.8 million people, is the only state in the union to have a unicameral legislature — that is, one legislative house. It also has the smallest legislative branch in the country, with just 49 senators who each serve a district of about 35,000 citizens.
(Full disclosure: I once lived in Lincoln and still have family in Omaha.)
Nebraska passed an initiative to amend the Constitution in 1934, and the first unicameral session was held three years later. There were 133 members of the legislature prior to the reorganization.
Credit for Nebraska’s Unicameral legislature is given to George William Norris, who served in the United States Senate from 1913-1943. In addition to being less costly and more efficient, Norris argued that a unicameral system would not need inter-house conference committees, “which Norris felt conducted their business in secretive, undemocratic ways.”
(Remember how the recent Hawaii session ended? The real action took place behind closed doors.)
He also believed that the activities of a small legislature “would be more open to public scrutiny, and would thus be less corrupt than a larger legislature.”
According to the Nebraska Unicameral, Norris argued that a bicameral system was modeled after the British Parliament, “which is made up of the House of Commons, with representatives elected by the people, and the House of Lords, with its aristocratic members appointed by the king.”
Norris believed that state constitutions are based on the idea of a single class of people, and so there was no need for two separate elected bodies to share the same jurisdiction.
The Nebraska Unicameral, which begins on the first Monday in January, lasts 60 legislative days in even-numbered years and 90 legislative days in odd-numbered years. Each bill goes through a committee and receives three rounds of floor debate before it can become a law.
The Unicameral is also nonpartisan. The top two finishers in a primary race face each other in the general.
“The one-house system differs little from most city, county and school district governing bodies,” according to Nebraska. “All Canadian provinces operate with single-house systems.”
What about checks and balances? Look to the executive and judicial branches, Nebraska says.
There are other perks to a unicameral system as well, according to Sen. Norris:
The people would serve as a check upon the possible abuse of power by their elected officials with the right to vote and petition, Norris said. The Nebraska Unicameral would have easy-to-follow procedures and extend greater privileges to the press to allow for greater public awareness.
To that end, Nebraska’s legislative website offers a nifty transcript search that includes committee hearings. Enter the word “corn,” for example, and no less than 24 pages of separate entries pop up for the 2011 session.
There are also individual pages for use by not just journalists but citizens, students and teachers and even agencies and lobbyists. While there is overlap in these sections, each page has additional links of use to particular groups — for example, a report on registered lobbyists in the section for agencies and lobbyists.
According to the Senate Clerk’s Office, Hawaii’s legislative website is scheduled to be overhauled this fall. Nebraska’s website might be a good place to start.
The Nebraska Unicameral’s motto is, “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen.”
Other states, according to Nebraska, have considered unicameral legislatures, including California, New York, Texas, Illinois — and Hawaii. Thus far, however, no state appears close to abandoning its bicameral system.
One criticism of the Nebraska system is that the state’s top politicians have usually been Republicans.
While there have been exceptions — former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, for example, is a nationally known Democrat — the state’s current governor, lieutenant governor and three U.S. House members are part of the GOP, as is one of Nebraska’s two U.S. senators. The other senator, Ben Nelson, is perhaps the most conservative Democrat serving today in the Senate.
However, there is also a centrist streak in the state: George Norris, for example, was a Republican who served one of his Senate terms as an Independent.
Another criticism is that unicameral systems are common to homogeneous societies where there is no need for multi-cameralism. Nebraska, it should be pointed out, is about 90 percent white and Christian.
Unicameral legislatures are also common in Communist states like the People’s Republic of China.
During the Hawaiian Monarchy, the Constitution of 1864 changed the kingdom’s legislature from bicameral to a unicameral: The House of Nobles and the House of Representatives were merged into one body, the Legislative Assembly.
Today, there has been renewed talk about a unicameral system for Hawaii.
Unicameralism (say 35 senators instead of today’s 76 legislators) would eliminate gamesmanship between houses and conference committee last-minute secret deals. We need a Con-Con to do it.”
If you wanted to design a process that preserves the status quo and discourages public involvement, look no further than the state Capitol. The very nature of having a bicameral Legislature means everything takes twice as long to do. Each bill goes through multiple committee hearings in either the Senate or House of Representatives. If it clears those hurdles, the bill crosses over to the other half of the Legislature and bill supporters must testify all over again for more committees. Along the way, the Senate or House might make changes that necessitate more meetings and negotiations to hammer out a final bill.
Figel’s solution: “Do away with the bicameral ‘part-time’ Legislature and go to a year-round unicameral system. That would cut government costs in half by eliminating one house, and we’d be able to boost the pay for full-time legislators. Fewer legislator jobs with higher salaries would increase competition and give us better candidates.”
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 865, introduced in the 2011 Legislature, proposes a constitutional amendment to create a unicameral legislature with 51 members serving four year terms.
SB 865 states:
Procedures and policies differ, sometimes substantially, between the two houses, making it time-consuming, confusing, and more difficult for citizen participation. Moreover, the two houses often take diametrically opposed positions on significant issues. This often results in inaction, or in important and controversial decisions being made by conference committees, where special interests can be more easily accommodated than in the more open, deliberative standing committee hearings.
A unicameral legislature would eliminate unnecessary duplication and would provide better citizen access to the legislative process.
SB 865, introduced by Republican state Sen. Sam Slom, did not receive a hearing. But it remains alive for the 2012 session.
Alia Wong contributed to this article.