This year brings about a lot of change in Hawaii’s political landscape. New leadership in both houses will allow for an opportunity to change how our legislative process is conducted – a change that promotes ethical practices, transparency, and greater public access to encourage more citizen participation in the Legislature, and preserve integrity in the Legislature. While the Legislature has made many improvements in public access in recent years, there is more that can be improved.

In order to make the legislative process more open and participatory for the public, Common Cause Hawaii and 13 other community organizations (see list below) have asked the Senate and House to consider implementing these rules and practices in the 2013 Legislative Session:

1) Eliminate the use of “gut and replace” practice
2) Provide adequate time (72 hours, excluding holidays and weekends) for hearing notices
3) Improve disclosure of conflicts of interests and enforce existing rules regarding conflicts
4) Increase public access through broadcasting/webcasting for public hearings
5) Require conference committees to post written comments and conference committee drafts onto the Capitol website.

Below are our proposed rules in further detail:

1) Eliminate the use of “gut and replace” practice

The poisonous practice of deleting a bill’s content and replacing it with different — and often unrelated to the bill’s original intent — content misleads the public, creates confusion, and leads to greater public disenchantment in the policy-making process. We urged the Legislature to eliminate this practice through its rules.

2) Provide adequate time (72 hours, excluding holidays and weekends) for hearing and notice requirements, in both houses

The Legislature moves very quickly. More lead time will allow for more citizens and organizations to submit meaningful testimony. Currently, the Senate requires three calendar days’ notice (for the first committee only) and the House requires only two days’ notice. With the existing short notice, it makes it extremely difficult for citizens to write and submit testimony, and almost impossible for them to rearrange work or personal schedules so that they may attend a hearing. Even announcing a hearing notice slightly earlier can make a difference in getting more people to participate. We have also asked that both houses provide 72 hours’ notice for subsequent hearings when there have been substantial changes in the bill.

In the emergency situations when hearing notice requirements need to be waived, we encouraged the legislative body to implement a practice of recording votes on the waiver, in order to ensure accountability for implementing these rules.

3) Improve disclosure of conflicts of interests and enforce existing rules regarding conflicts

To encourage transparency and promote public trust, we supported an improved and consistent Conflict of Interest disclosure policy in both houses, and asked that existing rules be enforced.

For better accountability for leadership, we asked that the Senate President, House Speaker, and presiding officers have the authority to raise potential issues of conflict of interest, and not simply wait on members to address it.

Further and more specifically, we advocated for these following Conflict of Interest practices.

A) Enforcement of Conflict of Interest rules:
Members should not vote on an issue where they have a conflict of interest — even if they have filed the conflict and stated it on the floor.

B) Require that financial disclosures be filed by January 31 of each year:

To ensure transparency of the financial interests of state lawmakers during legislative session, we proposed that disclosure forms be filed by January 31, instead of the current due date – at the end of May, after legislative session is over.

C) Expand who is allowed to file a Conflict of Interest complaint to include citizens.

We advocated for the House to adopt the Senate’s Conflict of Interest complaint filing procedure to allow a citizen to file a complaint against a House member. Currently, only House members may file a Conflict of Interest complaint against a member of the House.

D) Strengthen disclosure on the floor:

We advocated for members to state their existing and potential conflict of interest on the floor – and thus on record. In the Senate, members currently do not need to explicitly state that they have a conflict of interest if they have already filed their financial disclosure forms with the Ethics Commission (Senate Rule 83).

We believe members need to report a conflict of interest regardless of whether or not they are in doubt. Thus, we also supported the elimination of the clause at the end of the existing Senate Rule 85 section 2 that states: “If a member is uncertain as to whether a conflict of interest exists.”

4) Increase public access for public hearings

We proposed that public hearings and committee conferences be broadcast via webcast, or utilization of the most current and available video technology that would enable hearings to be broadcast, recorded, and replayed statewide, upon the viewer’s discretion. Without the ability to watch the hearings and floor sessions, a large segment of our population is excluded from observing the legislative process.

For the House: within this rule, we also asked that 1) the nonpartisan Public Access Room become the authority in determining which House hearings be recorded and presented, and 2) criteria used be clearly defined.

5) Require conference committees to post public comments and conference committee drafts onto Capitol website.

We asked that written comments submitted to conference committees concerning proposed legislation be placed in the committee’s public file, made available for posting on the Capitol website, and filed state archives in the same manner as written comments and testimony submitted to standing committees.

We care deeply about improving ethics, transparency, and public access in the legislative process, and are willing to work with our elected officials to help make this happen. With change in leadership, the opportunity is ripe to embrace these higher standards of ethical conduct. The new Senate and House Leadership have the ability to insist on higher standards and open decision-making.

Will they?

The letter to our legislators was co-signed by these organizations: American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii (ACLU of Hawaii); Americans for Democratic Action Hawaii; Citizens For Equal Rights; Hawaii Coalition for Health; Hawaii People’s Fund; Hawaii State Democratic Women’s Caucus; Hawaii’s Thousand Friends; League of Women Voters of Hawaii; Open Law Alliance; Progressive Democrats of Hawaii; Save Oahu Farms Alliance; Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter; Stuart Coleman, Hawaii Coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation.

About the author: Carmille Lim is the new executive director at Common Cause Hawaii. She is a board member of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii and was a past civic engagement volunteer with Kanu Hawaii. She is passionate about voting modernization, public access, transparency in the legislative process, and women’s issues.

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