Hawaii lawmakers are expected to consider a bill this session that would exempt members of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents from a law making their annual financial disclosure statements public.

House Bill 1532 is the brainchild of Rep. Isaac Choy, chair of the House Higher Education Committee. Sen. Brian Taniguchi, who heads the Higher Education and Arts Committee, has introduced the legislation in the Senate at Choy’s request. He said he supports it for similar reasons — namely, he said, to improve the quality of applicants to serve on the board.

Advocates for government transparency say that financial disclosure helps prevent and expose conflicts of interest.

Choy said the current 15-member board — which includes lawyers, educators, business people and a retired Supreme Court justice — isn’t cutting it. He wants to see the heads of big banks at the helm, people he believes can bolster the university by utilizing their governance experience in large, publicly traded companies.

Isaac Choy Chair Committee Higher Education sits in meeting as people testify regarding Bill 555. 5 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Rep. Isaac Choy, seen here during a hearing last session, says the University of Hawaii needs a better Board of Regents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

“A certain amount of openness is needed, but to get some of the really talented people, they’re not going to want to do that,” Taniguchi said, referring to making their financial disclosure statements public.

“I don’t think it’s the cure-all,” he said of his bill. “But it might get one or two people in there that might help turn the university around. I couldn’t tell you who those people are though.”

The Legislature unanimously passed a bill in 2014, which Gov. Neil Abercrombie let become law without his signature, that added 15 powerful state boards, including the Board of Regents, to the list of those whose members must publicly disclose their financial interests. Members of the Public Utilities Commission, Land Use Commission and Hawaii Community Development Authority were among those added.

Members of these boards already had to submit financial disclosure forms to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, but those forms remained private. The commission said, in its support of the 2014 law, that it lacked the resources to review the hundreds of filings on its own, and that making the forms public would improve accountability.

Critics of the transparency provisions say that public disclosure deters people from serving on state boards because they don’t want to share where their financial interests are or how much money they make. The forms don’t disclose exact salaries but do provide broad ranges, along with stock holdings and board affiliations.

The forms don’t disclose exact salaries but do provide broad ranges, along with stock holdings and board affiliations.

Supporters who worked for years to get some form of  this legislation passed have maintained that the bill represents a major boost in government transparency and helps weed out conflicts of interest.

Carmille Lim, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a good-government nonprofit that advocated for the 2014 bill, said that shielding the Board of Regents from disclosing their financial ties would be a blow to ethics and transparency.

“It’s definitely one of the more alarming bills that’s come up on our radar so far,” she said.

“Bill introduction deadline is next week, and we know many legislators are still scrambling to file bills. At the end of Opening Day, we noticed that Rep. Choy has already filed many sketchy bills that would water down government transparency and ethics,” Lim said.
Sen. Brian Taniguchi, seen here during a hearing Thursday, has introduced a bill to protect UH regents from disclosing their financial interests.
Sen. Brian Taniguchi, seen here during a hearing Thursday, has introduced a bill to protect UH regents from disclosing their financial interests. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

When asked how he responds to those who don’t want to erode recent government-transparency gains, Choy said, “This is better government when you have better managers.”

Taniguchi said it’s a balance. Right now, he said, the university needs better regents more than it needs openness.

“Rep. Choy has already filed many sketchy bills that would water down government transparency and ethics.” — Carmille Lim, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii.

Four regents resigned before the 2014 law took effect, but the vacancies have been filled. Abercrombie had considered vetoing the legislation, but it became a campaign issue when Gov. David Ige touted his support for the public disclosure.

Four regents’ terms end June 30. Ige was given a list in November of candidates to choose from to fill those seats. Two are for Honolulu, one is for Big Island and the other is a student seat.

Senate Bill 2080 has been referred to the Higher Education and Arts Committee, which Taniguchi chairs, and the Judiciary and Labor Committee, headed by Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran. No hearing has been scheduled yet on the Senate side, and Taniguchi said he’s inclined to let Choy take the lead on it in the House and see how it fare there first.

The House bill, introduced Wednesday, has not been referred to committee yet though it’s expected to go to Higher Education, which would give Choy the power to give it a hearing.

Civil Beat has created a searchable, sortable database that includes the financial disclosure statements of hundreds of board members, state lawmakers and elected officials.

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