Who runs the state of Hawaii — voters, or the people elected to represent them?

Arguably, both, but real power lies with the executive and legislative branches of government. Unlike about half of the states, the 50th does not allow for initiative, referendum and recall, ways in which citizens can directly enact major changes in governance.

We also don’t place term limits on legislators, and we haven’t had a constitutional convention in 36 years — the last time Hawaii dramatically overhauled its government.

In the 2014 Legislature, however, there are more than a dozen bills that call for putting more power into the hands of voters, effectively allowing for a more “direct” form of democracy.

The measures are coming primarily from Republicans but also several Democrats.

“We think this is particularly important because, over the years, we have watched Hawaii go from No. 1 in voter turnout and participation to No. 50 — last in the nation,” GOP Sen. Sam Slom said at a press conference last week at the Capitol. “We believe, particularly after listening to the people, that the reason they don’t vote is because they don’t feel that their voice matters. We want to do everything possible to make that voice matter, and we want to engage the public.”

Slom spoke along with Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson as the two minority leaders announced their support for a joint legislative package — the first time the two caucuses had done so in years. On Friday, Slom unveiled his own list of legislative priorities.

The GOP bills address a number of issues, and not every Republican backs every bill. But the measures calling for initiative, referendum, recall, term limits and a constitutional amendment stand out, even though they have failed to gain traction in previous legislatures.

The reason, Slom believes, is that the special session on same-sex-marriage has given the proposals a new urgency. He said many of the opponents of Senate Bill 1 — the bill that led to marriage equality becoming law on Dec. 2 — were surprised to learn there was no direct mechanism for citizens to place a question on the ballot or to try to kick a legislator out of office.

Courtesy

State Sen. Russell Ruderman.

Personally, I don’t favor term limits. I feel that people have a direct say on who will be their representatives every election. While some lawmakers abuse their positions, I find most to be dedicated public servants; the longer they are in office, the more experience and knowledge they gain, and the more effective they become at their job.

But I do think voters should be allowed to decide if they want term limits as well as the other “direct democracy” ideas being proposed. So do some Democrats, and some are joining forces with Republicans.

(In a July poll, Civil Beat found that 62 percent of those polled supported an initiative process.)

Democratic Reps. Bert Kobayashi, Takashi Ohno and Kaniela Ing are co-sponsoring a bill with Republican Rep. Richard Fale to limit the terms of House reps to five consecutive terms beginning in 2016. Democratic Sens. Malama Solomon, Mike Gabbard and Russell Ruderman have signed onto Slom’s constitutional convention question.

Ruderman is leading the charge for voter empowerment among Senate Democrats.

On his own he has introduced bills regarding recall of elected public officers and a similar measure calling for recall of the governor, lieutenant governor, state senators and state representatives. Gabbard is supporting Ruderman’s bill to enact initiative and referendum while Gabbard and Sen. Josh Green and backing another Ruderman proposal on initiative and referendum procedures.

Another reform-minded Senate Democrat, Les Ihara, is proposing a constitutional amendment to provide for a citizens’ legislative initiative.

None of the measures are publicly backed by House and Senate leadership, and as of this writing none have been scheduled for a hearing. And it is understandable that some legislators oppose more ways to kick them out of office or take away from their own power.

But these bills aren’t about lawmakers; they are about participatory democracy. If citizens want these bills to be heard, they can start by calling and emailing the committee chairs that the bills have been scheduled before. And, if you want to learn more about what’s involved with initiative, referendum and recall, I recommend you visit the National Conference of State Legislature’s website that provides easy-to-digest explanations.

Read the Bills

Senate Bill 2141 Amends Article II of the state Constitution to provide for recall.

Senate Bill 2359 Provides procedures for recall vote of elected state public officers.

Senate Bill 2355 Amends Article II of the state Constitution to provide for the recall of the governor, lieutenant governor, state senators and state representatives.

Senate Bill 2361 Proposes a constitutional amendment to provide for initiative and referendum.

Senate Bill 2631 Proposes an amendment to the state Constitution to provide for a citizens’ legislative initiative.

Senate Bill 2142 Amends Article III of the state Constitution to provide for initiative.

House Bill 1816 Amends the state Constitution to provide for direct initiative and popular referendum.

Senate Bill 2143 Amends Article XVII of the state Constitution to provide for referendum.

Senate Bill 2360 Provides for initiative and referendum procedures. Takes effect upon ratification of a constitutional amendment enabling legislation by the people.

Senate Bill 2144 Limits state senators to three consecutive 4-year terms and state representatives to six consecutive 2-year terms beginning with terms commencing on the day of the general election of 2014; provided that a person becomes eligible to serve in the same position again, if the person has been out of that office for four years.

House Bill 2417 Proposes a constitutional amendment to limit the terms of members of the House of Representatives elected in the general election of 2016 or thereafter to five consecutive full terms.

Senate Bill 2766 Submits question regarding constitutional convention to voters on ballot in 2014 general election.

House Bill 2397 Submits question regarding constitutional convention to voters on ballot in 2014 general election.

Senate Bill 2766 Submits question regarding constitutional convention** to voters on ballot in 2014 general election.

Senate Bill 2154 Proposes constitutional amendments to create a unicameral legislature to be known as the Legislature which shall consist of 51 members serving 4-year terms; and which shall commence after the general election in November 2014. Provides that the speaker of the Legislature and the minority leader shall each appoint four members to the Reapportionment Commission. Provides that the speaker of the Legislature shall appoint four members to the Judicial Selection Commission.

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