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There is already plenty of novelty in this session of the Hawaii Legislature. There’s a new governor who promises a new and improved relationship with his former legislative colleagues. There are some new issues like the HECO buyout. And there is at least one new crisis, Honolulu’s over-budget rail project.
But don’t get too excited. What best describes any legislative session, including this one, is not novelty. It’s caution, constraint, and stability.
No matter what the year is and what the issues are, the Legislature acts the same way.
All sessions have predictable rhythms that are easy to ignore in the excitement of the moment, but you need to understand these patterns if you want to understand the Legislature.
Like all institutions, the Legislature is governed by rules and norms that remain pretty much the same.
In addition, the same economic forces affect every session. These forces are stable, fundamental, and profoundly limit what the Legislature can accomplish.
Taken together, these rules and fundamentals have a strong impact on how the Legislature operates. These characteristics stay the same from one session to the next.
The Hawaii legislative process follows a steady rhythm composed of chaos, constraint, caution and mystery.
Hawaii’s Legislature operates as if the legislators are contestants in “The Amazing Race.” Like that TV reality show, a legislative session is an intense struggle to the finish. There are deadlines. Time ticks away. Everything seems so short and compressed.
Thousands of bills, dozens of hearings, people lining up talk to you, 16-hour days. And at the last minute — ta-da — the Legislature makes all of its important decisions, some of which come as a total surprise.
It’s a spectacle, much more harried than deliberative.
There is nothing sedate about this process. It’s a spectacle, much more harried than deliberative.
This pattern continues from session to session because each has the same time pressures that guarantee things will not get done until the last minute.
To outsiders this approach may seem flawed, even a little wacky, but it gets the job done. It is that institution’s customary way to bring order out of chaos.
One of the first things a rookie legislator learns is how to deal with this enormous time pressure. It’s extraordinarily hard to get people to adopt new rules if the old ones are working for them, so the old rhythms persist.
Two powerful fundamentals limit every session.
The first is that outside economic forces impact Hawaii. The global economy drives the state’s economy. What’s more, the state’s basic economic structure is virtually impossible to change in any significant way.
Tourism, construction and the military are the backbone of Hawaii’s economy. As a local economist recently said, without these three, the state’s economy is essentially hair salons and nails.
The Legislature cannot solve important problems, but can only pick away at them.
Despite the optimistic talk and good intentions — economic diversity, tax breaks, loans — Hawaii’s economy is basically the same as it has been for years because, given basic economic forces like capitalism and scarcity, the Legislature can only work at the margins.
Housing is a good example. The state can do some things to alleviate the housing crisis, but market forces are far beyond the capacity of any Legislature to overcome.
That’s a key reason why it cannot solve important problems and can only pick away at them.
The second fundamental is constitutional. By law the state has to have a balanced budget. There is no such thing as deficit spending.
The constitutional ritual is the same before every session. The state’s Council of Revenues reports its estimates of revenue growth, and that is what the governor and Legislature are required to work with.
The operational question for the governor and the Legislature is always the same: How do we work within this framework?
The constitutional rule certainly favors fiscal responsibility, and at the same time limits legislative creativity.
The best single word to describe the Legislature is not “liberal” or even “Democratic. “ The best word is “caution.”
Hawaii’s Legislature has been out of the path-breaking policy business for a long time. The mandatory health care act was the body’s last truly big innovative policy. That was over 40 years ago.
It is safe to assume that any major act passed in any legislative session will be incomplete.
Instead things move very slowly and piecemeal, or they may suddenly disappear entirely, which is happening with the push for universal pre-kindergarten.
Consider medical marijuana and community hospitals, issues that have been around for years.
Fifteen years ago legislators passed a law that legalized medical marijuana, but after all this time they still have not adopted the policies to make this law work.
Though community hospitals have been in serious financial troubles for years, the Legislature is still trying to figure out an alternative to throwing a lot of money into a system that isn’t working.
This is nothing out of the ordinary. This cautious, risk-averse set of rhythms is by now so ingrained that it is safe to assume that any major act passed in any legislative session will be incomplete. It’s the way the Legislature rolls.
Every session the same thing happens. The closer legislators get to the end, the less the public knows about what is really going on. All that easy, early access disappears.
We know which bills are going forward, but not much about the important informal discussions that ultimately shape the bill. It’s a deep, dark tunnel.
There are factions in the Hawaii Legislature, but the public knows nothing about them.
There are many reasons for this, ranging from time management to political shenanigans. But there is another reason — the fundamental weakness of the state’s Republican legislators. By now that weakness seems permanent and fundamental enough to be a given.
Opposition parties are rightfully tattletales. They are critics and watchdogs. Without this tattling, many things go on that the public does not know about.
Sure, the Republicans speak out. Sen. Sam Slom is no shrinking violet. But nobody pays much attention.
Historically, state legislatures that are dominated by one political party have well-known factions based on personalities or ideology.
Not in Hawaii. There are factions in our Legislature, but the public knows nothing about them.
The factions are very opaque. They don’t identify themselves. Ideological differences? Personal differences? Who knows? They are more like secret societies than political alliances.
Understanding the factions is critical if you want to know what’s going on, particularly late in the session.
Why don’t we know? One reason is that the media does not pay enough attention. But another reason goes right back to the limited tattling power of a tiny Republican minority.
My examination of the Legislature is not dramatic. It does not exactly bring in ‘da noise. It stresses stable forces and rules rather than real personalities and heated conflicts, predictability rather than the excitement of the hot button issues of today.
But there is great value in stepping back and taking this kind of quiet time. If nothing else, it will help you understand why the persistence of these rhythms makes it so hard to change things.
The Hawaii Legislature works at the margins of our fundamental problems, and often it is unwilling to do even that.