Two years ago, the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., led a nationwide effort to analyze government transparency and policies to deter corruption on a state-by-state basis.

The center hired journalists in each state to conduct the study, called the State Integrity Project. Civil Beat was tapped to do the work in Hawaii using the same 330 indicators that reporters in all 50 states were using. Our report, published in March 2012 with dozens of follow-up stories, gave Hawaii a C grade overall.

One problem in particular was the fact that there was quite a disconnect between the laws that are on the books and how they are being followed. Hawaii was ranked 44th in the country in terms of what was called the enforcement gap.

That caught the attention of some local public policy experts who wanted to see what could be done to improve Hawaii’s score. Peter Adler, a veteran facilitator who specializes in dispute resolution and mediation, organized a study group to tackle one area in which Hawaii was rated particularly low — lobbying laws and lobbying practices. The public’s lack of ability to effectively track how lobbyists were influencing lawmakers earned Hawaii a D-.

Adler rounded up about 20 people interested in the issue – lawmakers, lobbyists, people who hire lobbyists, journalists, watchdog groups and others. But it wasn’t just a local coffee klatch. He conducted a disciplined and formal process to explore the issues, which is why the results should be taken very seriously by political leaders.

Full disclosure: I was involved in the early talks about organizing this effort but dropped out because of the clear conflicts of interest on a number of levels. I did attend the initial gathering of the study group — a year ago — at Adler’s request to give an overview of the State Integrity Project and how Civil Beat did the research.

So I can tell you that journalists in the group — including Ian Lind, Denby Fawcett, Ikaika Hussey and Daryl Huff — had to agree not to report about what was said or who said what during the entire process. They appear to have honored that restriction. I’ve not seen any reporting on the effort other than a brief mention in a Civil Beat story on lobbying reform earlier this year. In a column for Civil Beat earlier this week — the day the report came out — Lind discussed lobbying and some of the problems with the lack of transparency in Hawaii causes, but didn’t really go into detail about what the study group actually talked about.

But there’s plenty more to discuss and, from the looks of the report, it’s really pretty interesting. Unfortunately, the group never reached a consensus — it’s unclear exactly why — and the final report takes great pains to characterize the 11 points it comes up with as just “ideas for future discussion” and not recommendations. In fact, two of the lobbyists who participated — Bob Toyofuko and Gary Slovin — felt the need to write a dissenting opinion to make it crystal clear they don’t agree with all of the statements included in the ideas.

Instead, the report — delicately — suggests: “These ideas, some of which may be viewed as radical, are offered as thoughts for further exploration and study when time and opportunity present themselves.”

Radical? These ideas are anything but radical. They are no-brainers that are long overdue. I’m sure the public would have little argument with them. They include:

  • “Improve Electronic Databases: The databases that the state uses to report lobbying filings, along with many other financial disclosures, are not user-friendly. The Study Group is aware that improvements to the state’s IT infrastructure are under way, but ‘traceability’ and the ability to understand financial disclosures by lobbyists and legislators will build greater confidence and should be a goal.”

  • “Lobbyists are not currently required to disclose their own campaign contributions. The information can be pieced together from legislator disclosures but that information would seem integral to understanding paid lobbyist influence and should be filed with other lobbying reports. Just as candidates report lobbyist donations over $100, lobbyists should include campaign donations in their public lobbying reports and treat all donations as part of their lobbying effort.”

  • “Require Monthly Filings: Currently, lobbyists file three reports annually: two during the legislative session, and one after the legislature has concluded its business. Given the sophisticated electronic capabilities of lobbyists and the organizations that retain them, filings in Hawai‘i could be done monthly as is done in some other states … (T)he benefits to the public in monthly filing come in the form of transparency by having more thorough access to expenditures all the way through to the end of the legislative session.”

  • “Make Legislators’ Calendars Public Record: Transparency is the key to reducing some of the public skepticism that surrounds lobbying. Lobbyists currently disclose their general categories of lobbying activity, but the categories do not reveal much. Reports include hours and expenditures, but do not include with whom the lobbyists actually met, the specific expenses and bills related to lobbying for legislation, administrative rule changes, permits or approvals being sought, and other actions. Making better descriptions of lobbying activities available to the public would provide greater transparency, traceability, and accountability, but may also be impractical or become overly burdensome… (M)ake legislators responsible for more transparency. This can be as simple as posting calendars with records of all formal meetings held in a legislator’s office and making them available to the public.”

  • “Disclose Relationships and Job Connections: Neither lobbyists, the organization they represent, nor legislators, are currently required to disclose any contracts they may have with each other, particularly legislators who are attorneys, realtors, CPAs, insurance agents, contractors, marketing experts, media experts, or other consulting specialists … (L)obbyists are not currently required to disclose what boards they sit on or what memberships they may have in various nonprofit or special interest organizations. Reporting all contractual relationships with public officials, including contract amounts and services/products provided, and disclosing professional and social memberships, will improve everyone’s understanding of how influence actually works on a case-by-case instance when the need for traceability arises.”

  • “Disclose Authorship of Proposed Legislation: One further step toward transparency might be to make note of bills that are submitted by request from lobbyists, unpaid advocates, and others. A transparent system not only requires that the source of proposed legislation be cited, but that it tracks correspondence between a legislator and the volunteer advocates and critics of such legislation. Documenting a bill’s evolution for the purpose of transparency can be done practically if both members of the House and Senate were required to follow the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) and the Sunshine Law.”

  • “Strengthen the Ethics Commission: The Ethics Commission is perennially underfunded and does not have the resources, infrastructure, or the legislative support it needs to effectively do its job. The Study Group’s discussions suggest that Hawai‘i’s laws can be improved, but without better monitoring and enforcement, changes to the rules and regulations will probably not, by themselves, make a great difference.”

There’s more non-recommendations — tighten the definition of a lobbyist and change the requirements that trigger reporting, require annual training, close the loophole that requires lobbyists to “willfully” intend to violate the law before they can be charged.

Doesn’t this all make perfect sense?

What could possibly be wrong with making lobbyists disclose who they lobbied and on what issue? And how much they spent? Their campaign contributions should be easy to spot, their meetings with lawmakers easily tracked, the bills they write disclosed up front. The Ethics Commission definitely needs more resources.

The report discusses at some length the suspicions that the public has about lobbying. It notes that lobbyists don’t like being called “hired guns” who operate “in the shadows.” It talks about the public’s perceptions of unfair influence and undue influence.

So I asked Peter Adler why this group of well-regarded policy luminaries couldn’t come to an agreement to present to the Legislature in time for legislators to consider reforms.

And, more importantly, who’s going to dust it off in eight months when lawmakers are back in session?

Adler says the group actually ended up looking at lobbying as a small piece of a much more complex topic: influence. The report chronicles much of the discussion about other kinds of influences on lawmakers including personal and social connections, business relationships and political participation including campaign contributions.

“The goal was not necessarily to forge minute changes but to look at the larger questions around lobbying,” he says. “Influence is just a very tough topic.”

Adler points out that this was the first time members of a group like this have sat down and really talked to each other. Opening this kind of dialogue is a good thing, and he believes it will lead to further work and even potentially reform.

There are several lawmakers who are interested in carrying this forward next legislative session, he says, adding that he’s also heard from county council members who are interested in using the group’s work as a starting point for discussions at the local level.

“I don’t know that it will lead to immediate sweeping change,” Adler says. “But it shows that people with reasonable good will … can sit down and have a civil conversation and try to punch through some of the stereotypes.”

“It leaves a good trail for the future.”

Let’s hope someone actually takes the first step down that trail, and soon.

The report and study group were funded through a grant from the Collaborative Leaders Network. CLN is 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.

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