Should Hawaii taxpayers foot the bill for a lawmaker’s cough drops?

What about bus passes for staff members? Or a retirement luncheon for a colleague?

The state Ethics Commission voted 3-2 on Wednesday to approve new guidelines for lawmakers to follow in an effort to tighten up how they have been using their annual allowance of almost $12,000 apiece.

But old habits die hard.

Ethics Commission meets

Hawaii State Ethics Commission members listen as a staff attorney discusses legislative allowances Tuesday in Honolulu.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

House Speaker Joe Souki and Senate President Donna Mercado Kim maintain that the Legislature is solely responsible for monitoring the allowances and sanctioning members if they misuse it.

Souki and Kim sent letters to the commission saying they welcomed its recommendations and will consider revising their rules. But they gave no ground on their belief that the Legislature has exclusive jurisdiction.

Civil Beat in October examined how all 76 members of the Legislature were using their allowances. This nearly $1 million pot of public money was going to everything from dry cleaning and hand towels to iPads and conference tables.

The commission started looking at the issue in February after lawmakers complained about how some of their colleagues were using the funds. Upon reviewing two years worth of expenses, staff prepared a 21-page recommendation on June 5, which the commission adopted unamended Wednesday, that segregated “personal” uses from those “reasonably related” to a legislator’s official duties.

Dry cleaning? Not OK, according to the commission. But an iPad for work is fine.

Membership dues to the Council of State Governments or National Conference of State Legislatures are acceptable uses of the allowance. But not the Sierra Club or Costco.

Buying food is fine when staff members have to work extra late. But not for birthdays or retirement parties. 

Rep. Tom Brower bought a sledgehammer to destroy shopping carts being used by homeless people with public money. After an outcry over the stunt, he reimbursed the House.

Flowers are cool for the Legislature’s opening day festivities. But not for the funeral of a friend. Unless it’s a major public figure like Sen. Dan Inouye, then it’s OK.

“The allowance was never intended to be a subsidy,” Ethics Associate Director Susan Yoza said.

Lawmakers receive annual salaries of $55,898. In 2013, their legislative allowance was $11,261. The allowance has more than doubled over the past decade in step with salary increases.

Most members of the Legislature utilize their allowance, some even max it out each year. Only one, Sen. Sam Slom, doesn’t touch it. By his accounting, he has saved taxpayers $118,037 since he was first elected in 1996.

The issue has become political this election season. Pat Saiki, chair of the Hawaii Republican Party, issued a statement Wednesday slamming certain lawmakers for misusing the fund.

She identified Rep. Tom Brower as among the worst offenders for buying a sledgehammer to destroy shopping carts being used by homeless people.

Brower did indeed buy the sledgehammer with his allowance, claiming the $37 expense as an office supply. He was reimbursed for the expense Nov. 15, but he submitted a repayment to the House on Nov. 19 after receiving so much public backlash over his stunt.

“Is this the point that we have come to — that our representatives, civil servants whom the people of Hawaii have invested their trust in, have to be told specifically how to not waste taxpayer dollars?” Saiki said.

“Our representatives are supposed to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. If they want to buy garlic salt, hand towels or area rugs, then perhaps they should do what most people in Hawaii do — use their own hard-earned dollars.”

Commission Chair Leolani Abdul and Commissioners Edward Broglio and Susan DeGuzman voted in favor of the new guidelines on legislative allowances.

Abdul, who at one point tried to move the discussion into executive session, said the commission’s advice on how lawmakers should spend the allowance will give the public more confidence that the money is used right.

DeGuzman noted that it’s merely guidance.

“We’re actually trying to help them,” she said.

Commissioners David O’Neal and Ruth Tschumy voted against the staff recommendation.

O’Neal said the Legislature already has its own guidelines and those are sufficient. He added that it’d be a nightmare to enforce the rules given the commission’s limited resources.

Here is the staff recommendation the commission approved:

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