Editor’s Note: It’s been nearly a year since Civil Beat published Hawaii’s part in the national State Integrity Investigation, a nationwide project that looked at how accountable state governments are to their citizens. Hawaii received a D- for lobbying disclosure, one of 14 measures used to rank states in a national scorecard of sorts. Now, a small group of Hawaii community leaders is spearheading an effort, possibly in time for this year’s legislative session, to try to bring that score up.

This is the first of a three-part series that examines Hawaii’s lobbying disclosure law and looks at what we can learn from how other states handle oversight of lobbyists.

Part 2: Lobbying Reform Is A Tough Sell In Hawaii’s Legislature

Part 3: Lobbying Lessons: What Hawaii Can Learn From Other States

Keeping tabs on who is trying to influence public policy in Hawaii and how they are going about it is difficult in Hawaii.

Unlike many other states, Hawaii requires very little information from those who lobby as well as those who get lobbied. Lobbyists’ reports are limited to revealing total dollar amounts spent lobbying and specifying what issue is being lobbied.

And reports are not required to be filed in time for the public to clearly track who is pushing for — or against — particular bills. The legislative session is long over before the reports come in.

And when they do, it’s often hard to get ahold of them. Many reports also are not available online, making it even more difficult for interested citizens to follow the process.

The agency that oversees the lobbying law also is financially hamstrung. The state Ethics Commission has tried — and failed — year after year to shore up the law.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s little political will to fix the problems. Why would lawmakers want to give more teeth to a law that could turn around and bite them?

But Hawaii’s lobbying law needs to be vetted and revamped, open-government advocates say.

“The intent of the law is to provide transparency to the public,” said state Sen. Les Ihara, who has tried for years to pass laws requiring more public disclosure of lobbying activities.

“The idea is not to prohibit lobbying but to shine a light on it,” he said. “There are things happening in another corner — not where the light is. We need to move the light where the activity is going on.”

Chapter 97, the state’s lobbying law, sets out the rules governing lobbying by special interests trying to sway policymakers.

In simple terms, a lobbyist is someone who is paid to try to influence government action. The law exempts some groups though under certain conditions, including newspapers and elected officials acting in their official capacity. It also sets a threshold for when someone becomes a lobbyist who is subject to the law.

Any individual who for pay or other consideration engages in lobbying in excess of five hours in any month of any reporting period or spends more than $750 lobbying during any reporting period. Lobbying means communicating directly or through an agent, or soliciting others to communicate, with any official in the legislative or executive branch for the purpose of attempting to influence legislative or administrative action or a ballot issue.

Several hundred organizations ranging from Sierra Club to Chevron, Castle & Cooke to County of Kauai, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to lobby state officials and elected representatives. Since 2006, more than $30 million was reported to the Hawaii Ethics Commission, which is tasked with implementing and enforcing the law.

The commission’s job, in part, is to ensure lobbyists follow Hawaii’s lobbying and ethics laws. This is something good-government groups like the Hawaii League of Women Voters and Common Cause keep tabs on too.

“It’s possible for a lobbyist to contribute to public debate on important topics, by virtue of having specialized expertise or new information,” League of Women Voters Vice President Janet Mason said. “But ours is a representative democracy, with members of the Legislature and other public officials elected to represent the people, first and foremost – to be legislators of these people, by these people and for these people. The lobbyist’s perspective should never crowd out the voters’ interests.”

The law is clear on what lobbyists can’t do. A single line in the statute bans lobbyists from accepting any payment that is based upon the defeat, enactment or outcome of any proposed legislative or administrative action.

But that leaves a lot of room for what lobbyists can do to exert influence on behalf of their clients. One thing is clear: It’s all about access to lawmakers and public officials who will be deciding issues of importance to their clients.

News media often report on lobbying that involves taking decision-makers out to sporting events, for example, or to lavish dinners.

But top lobbyists say there is much more to it than wining and dining. They argue they are also essential to the law-making process because they are a resource on complicated issues like healthcare and transportation.

Bob Toyofuku, who has been a lobbyist for multiple clients in Hawaii for the past 28 years, said a big part of his work is educating lawmakers.

“My job is to break it down as simple as possible for legislators to understand — and then advocate for the client’s position, for or against,” he said.

There are misconceptions as to how lawmakers are influenced, Toyofuku added.

“Say you take someone to lunch or breakfast. It’s not the meal that does it,” he said. “What you need is the time with the legislator, especially chairs of committees, because they are so busy.”

The Ethics Commission maintains a list on its website of Hawaii’s registered lobbyists and what clients they represent.

The law requires a lobbyist to specify what issue they are interested in and whether they support or oppose legislation. And it requires them to give a total dollar amount spent during a reporting period.

But that’s about it. They don’t have to say who they are trying to influence or their financial relationships. And they don’t have to say specifically what the money was spent on — dinner, for instance, or a ticket to an event.

Melissa Pavlicek, a lobbyist who coordinates an annual ethical lobbying program at the University of Hawaii’s law school, said she considers lobbying “advocacy for pay for a specific administrative or legislative action.”

She said lobbying can occur during many types of meetings and communications. It doesn’t have to be one-on-one behind closed doors.

Like Toyofuku, Pavlicek considers her role to be advocacy and education. But she also lobbies to help the public engage in the legislative process, she said.

Recently, a group of interested citizens came together under the auspices of the Collaborative Leaders Network to review the lobbying laws and consider whether they should be reformed or strengthened to provide more transparency about who’s trying to influence public policy and how they’re going about it. The broader group is expected to ultimately include state officials, legislators and representatives of private companies and nonprofits.

Peter Adler, a Honolulu facilitator and mediator, is helping lead the project. The first effort is to see how accurate the State Integrity Project was in giving Hawaii a “D-” in the lobbying disclosures category last year.

Adler heads a steering committee comprised of Ihara; journalist and author Denby Fawcett; Collaborative Leaders Network executive officer Robbie Alm, who is also Hawaiian Electric Industries vice president; and Hawaii Association of Non-Profit Organizations Executive Director Lisa Maruyama.

Over the next few weeks, the committee plans to conduct roughly 20 interviews of lobbyists, NGOs, executives and elected officials. Out of those interviews, Adler said the group will try to zero in on elements of Hawaii’s lobbying law and practices that could be improved.

The project is important because it will demonstrate a fresh process for discussing sensitive and difficult issues concerning government accountability, transparency and public access, he said. (Developing a process to work on important issues is the aim of the Collaborative Leaders Network, funded by The Omidyar Group, which represents the personal, professional and philanthropic interests of Civil Beat Publisher and CEO Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.)

The State Integrity Investigation identified several areas as having room for improvement:

  • Registration. Lobbyists are required to register with the state, but in practice those reports are not filed in a timely manner, loopholes exist and the information provided is overly broad.

  • Disclosure. Lobbyists are required to report lobbying expenditures, such as gifts and entertainment, but there’s confusion over what has to be included and it’s difficult for the public to access the information.

  • Enforcement. The state does not require independent auditing of lobbyist disclosure records and rarely imposes fines when lobbyists under-report their expenses, but the Ethics Commission does investigate allegations of violations and reviews the filings.

Read Hawaii’s current lobbying law:

Coming Tuesday: The difficulties in trying to reform a political process

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