State legislators seem more inclined to toughen up ethics laws and improve government transparency this session compared to previous years.

Some key bills may be faring better because of the change in House leadership, lawmakers say.

Rep. Joe Souki, who took over as speaker after forming a coalition to oust Rep. Calvin Say, shuffled committee lineups and overall priorities when session started last month. New committee chairs, who can kill bills by not giving them a hearing, are steering a few proposed ethics laws toward passage.

“We want to get going on these, what I call, no-brainer bills,” Consumer Protection and Commerce Chair Angus McKelvey told Civil Beat after a hearing Monday.

He said the new committee chairs, himself included, bring “new eyeballs” to the legislation.

The state Ethics Commission submitted eight bills this year in its legislative package.

The bills are aimed at strengthening state laws on nepotism, lobbying and financial relationships. Three of the bills have received hearings and cleared important committees.

The commission submitted almost the same package of eight bills in 2011 and 2012.

None of the legislation passed either chamber. And only one bill — requiring mandatory ethics training — received a hearing each year, according to a review of the archives. The others died in the first committee they were referred to.

Financial Disclosure

Included in this year’s legislative package from the Ethics Commission is a bill that requires seven more boards and commissions to file financial disclosure statements annually that are publicly available. The boards are significant entities, too, including the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, the Public Utilities Commission and Board of Land and Natural Resources.

The Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee passed House Bill 207 Monday, advancing it to the Finance Committee. McKelvey said he thinks it could be up for a full House vote by week’s end, at which point it would cross over to the Senate if approved.

Ethics Executive Director Les Kondo said the boards and commissions have “significant authority” and should be required to file public financial disclosure statements, just like department heads at other state agencies have to do.

“The primary purpose of the disclosure law is to provide transparency into certain types of financial interests of legislators, state officials, state employees and state board members to help identify potential conflicts of interest,” Kondo said in his testimony.

The commission already receives almost 1,800 financial disclosure statements annually, but fewer than 200 are public, kept confidential by law.

“Unfortunately, because of the commission’s limited resources and, in many cases, lack of understanding as to the employee’s official duties, the commission’s ability to review all of the disclosure filing and to determine whether an employee may have a conflict of interest is very limited,” Kondo said. “For that reason, generally, the public is the best and most effective source to identify possible conflicts of interest.”

The commission, which has a long list of responsibilities that include enforcing the lobbying law, operates with a staff of 10 people and a budget of $850,000.

Kondo asked the Legislature to approve a $60,000 increase in its overall budget for next year, which is still less than what the commission had in 2009 before a series of cuts. That bill passed the House last week and is scheduled for decision-making before the Senate’s money committee Wednesday.

The Public Utilities Commission, the only board or commission to submit testimony on the financial disclosure bill, has concerns about the legislation.

“The commission supports the principle of open and transparent government, however, requiring some board and commission members to disclose their personal finances publicly may discourage the most qualified candidates from participating in these roles,” PUC Chair Mina Morita said in her testimony.

As an alternative, she proposed the commissioners instead file an affidavit affirming that they don’t have a financial interest in any business regulated by the commission. PUC commissioners already have to file financial disclosure statements, but they are among those kept confidential by law.

McKelvey doesn’t buy the argument that financial disclosure statements might deter some people from becoming a board member. He said that’s akin to discouraging anyone from seeking public office.

Messages seeking comment from the Board of Regents, Board of Land and Natural Resources and Hawaii Labor Relations Board were not returned Monday.

Here’s a look at the other ethics bills in the commission’s package that are still alive this session:

  • House Bill 203, which would give the commission extra time to render advisory opinions, has yet to receive a hearing.

  • House Bill 204 would prohibit certain state employees from taking official action directly affecting any undertaking in which they have reason to know that certain family members have a substantial financial interest. No hearing.

  • House Bill 205 would prohibit legislators and public employees from naming, appointing or hiring a relative to public office or employment. Committee chairs have yet to schedule a hearing for this nepotism legislation.

  • House Bill 206 requires mandatory ethics training for all employees whose financial disclosure statements are public. The legislation cleared the House Judiciary Committee unamended and heads to the Finance Committee next.

  • House Bill 208 toughens up the lobbying law a bit by making it easier to fine lobbyists who fail to file required reports. It passed the Judiciary Committee amended last week and heads to Finance next.

  • House Bill 209 repeals the exemption task force members have from certain conflict of interest and disclosure laws. No hearing yet for this bill.

  • House Bill 210, which is similar to HB209, would clarify that task force members must file public financial disclosure statements annually. No hearing yet on this bill either.

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