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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 last 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.
Hawaii’s efforts to strengthen its lobbying laws have consistently fallen victim to a resistant Legislature.
A Civil Beat review of laws in other states suggests lawmakers’ reluctance to pass laws cracking down on themselves is pretty common.
But in many states, citizens have prevailed and pushed through tougher laws with more transparency through an initiative process that allows citizens to gather signatures on petitions and refer questions to the ballot.
Hawaii is one of about 25 states that doesn’t have a citizen initiative or referendum process. Here, the Legislature or counties can send measures to the ballot, but not the public.
As a result, changing Hawaii laws means convincing state lawmakers it’s a good idea. That’s a tough task when it comes to the lobbying law.
“Those states with good laws get them through initiative,” said Dan Mollway, former longtime director of the Hawaii Ethics Commission, the agency that administers and enforces the state’s lobbying law.
“The people really want this,” he said. “It’s just that the Legislature really is adamant about these things and stifles it.”
Hawaii has one of the weakest lobbying laws in the country, according to a recent national survey called the State Integrity Investigation. Reporting is less frequent, disclosure reports less robust and enforcement lax due to inadequate resources.
Hawaii got a solid lobbying law on the books in 1975, which the Ethics Commission started enforcing in 1978. But since then the Legislature has lacked the political will to approve any significant updates.
Almost three dozen lobbying reform bills have been introduced in the last decade alone, with few even getting a committee hearing. Five bills — some just slightly modified versions of past attempts — have been introduced again this legislative session.
States like Washington and California, by contrast, have not felt the need to improve on lobbying laws, largely because they started out very strong, advocates in those states say.
Washington faced a similar predicament as Hawaii — an uphill battle through the Legislature — when it first looked at passing a lobbying law more than four decades ago. But after twice failing to gain any traction in the Legislature, voters took matters into their own hands.
Through a citizen petition, they passed a robust law in 1973 to regulate lobbying. A second ballot initiative 20 years ago added campaign contribution limits.
Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission, said there haven’t been major overhauls since then.
“It was pretty strong in the beginning,” she said.
Washington’s law requires lobbyists to file monthly disclosure reports, whereas Hawaii only requires three annual reports. Washington also mandates random audits, unlike Hawaii, and lobbyists have to include a more itemized breakdown of their expenses.
“We’ve got a lot of disclosure,” Anderson said. “For those citizens who are interested — and they’re looking at who’s lobbying — it does help keep the people that are elected accountable to their constituents.”
California has a similar history as Washington.
Through a ballot initiative, voters in 1974 passed a strong lobbying law following the Watergate scandal. A second citizens petition passed in 2000, adding new campaign finance provisions and tweaking the disclosure and enforcement provisions.
“California has some of the most progressive lobbying laws in the nation that provide a great deal of disclosure of lobbying activities as well as restrictions on gifts and other forms of influence,” said Gary Winuk, chief of the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s enforcement division. “That being said, we are always vigilant in seeing current trends and potential loopholes in our laws and regulations to make sure that public disclosure of lobbying activity is occurring.”
California requires lobbyists to file quarterly reports, itemize their expenses and be subject to random audits every two years. Unlike Washington and California, Hawaii doesn’t require routine audits. Although the Ethics Commission’s current executive director, Les Kondo, has said his office’s investigation into complaints and missing reports functions similar to an audit.
Washington is looking to update its lobbying law by requiring lobbyists to file electronically so a searchable database would be easier, Anderson said. Currently, lobbyists have the option of filing electronically, but if they don’t, the commission’s staff has to scan the reports and put them online.
A bill to require mandatory electronic filing has been introduced a number of times, she said, but the pushback has been too strong.
Other states’ reporting requirements are also more stringent than Hawaii’s. For instance, an event put on by a lobbying group is considered a gift and must be reported as such. The invitation has to include a notice that attendance is considered a gift.
Hawaii Sen. Les Ihara, who is trying again this year to push through comprehensive lobbying reform, said he receives numerous invitations at the start of each session from nonprofits, business groups and big corporations.
The invitations don’t say anything about his attendance qualifying as a reportable gift because it’s not required in Hawaii, but some do include how many people an organization represents.
As an example, Ihara received an invitation in 2009 to have breakfast with members of the Hawaii Dental Association at The Pacific Club. The invitation said there would be “good food, a good time, no lobbying.” It also notes that HDA, a registered lobbyist employer, represents 950 dentists statewide.
HDA’s expense report for that period shows it paid lobbyist Russell Yamashita $10,000 and spent $680 for food on the day of the breakfast. But the report doesn’t provide many other details, such as who attended the event.
Mollway said the foremost issue for Hawaii is to get more disclosure and back-up records, which Ihara’s proposed bills would do.
“This public disclosure and transparency alone stops abuses to a good degree,” Mollway said. “This may seem counter-intuitive in terms of harsher laws, but disclosure is an under-estimated tool.”
That could help Hawaii’s understaffed Ethics Commission, which has limited resources to enforce the lobbying law.
Washington has found that more disclosure and transparency is not only a deterrent, but it has created a system of self-policing to a certain extent, Anderson said.
“As far as making sure everyone is filing, the Internet has really helped,” she said. “Other lobbyists keep tabs on their competitors, like if someone is testifying against them.”
California ensures compliance by maintaining an aggressive enforcement division that tracks and follows up on all parties that don’t file their required lobbying forms and responds to all complaints regarding violations, Winuk said.
Another difference between Hawaii’s lobbying law and other states is not just what has to be disclosed, but where.
Hawaii requires campaign finance disclosure, but those reports are maintained on the Campaign Spending Commission’s website. So if a lobbyist donates to a legislator’s campaign, it will be disclosed there instead of on their lobbyist disclosure report.
Washington’s lobbyist reports include campaign contributions as well as their other lobbying activities, such as gifts or events.
Anderson said having everything in one place “helps the whole world see it.”