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The history of Hawaii legislative sessions is one littered with good ideas that could never get off the ground.
From taking meaningful action on homelessness and affordable housing to addressing the woeful physical condition of Hawaii’s public schools to tackling law enforcement reform, legislators have developed toes of steel through their dogged annual practice of kicking the can down the road.
With apologies to Ben Franklin, “Put off until tomorrow what you can do today” might well be the motto at the state capitol.
Some would argue that making laws and legislating change ought to be difficult, and that the Legislature’s plodding approach helps ensure bad legislation doesn’t get passed. Fair enough. But what are voters to do when the process is just too slow, or when legislators refuse to act on matters they fear might diminish their own power?
The unfortunate answer is that there is very little they can do: Hawaii has no citizen initiative process that allows voters to put issues on elections ballots for a simple up or down vote. Hawaii is the only Western state without some sort of voter initiative law, and that rightly troubles Sens. Russell Ruderman, Laura Thielen and Maile Shimabakuro, who have put forward legislation this session to change that.
Senate Bill 2754 would allow voters to decide whether to amend the state Constitution to create an initiative process that would transfer some measure of legislative power back to the people.
In framing the bill, the three lawmakers have incorporated safeguards that assure our ballots wouldn’t be strewn with reckless or nefarious initiatives. For instance, petitioners would have to gather valid signatures from 10 percent of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election to qualify a measure for the ballot. Potential measures would not be able to target an individual or a company, address a budget issue or change the state Constitution.
Any proposal would have to be certified as legal by the state attorney general before it could go on the ballot, and a supermajority of the Legislature could repeal any ballot initiative five years after its passage.
The bill wasn’t created out of thin air or in reaction to stymied personal agendas. Rather, Ruderman and Thielen brought it back from their participation last fall in the Council of State Governments’ Western Leadership Academy. It is informed not only by Hawaii’s clear need for such a process, but by the experiences of other states, some of which have fine tuned their own ballot initiative processes over decades.
If the Legislature passes the citizen’s initiative measure and Gov. David Ige signs off, the proposal would be placed on the fall 2016 general election ballot, where voters would have the final say.
Despite the bill’s obvious benefits for Hawaii’s citizenry, it hasn’t exactly set the Legislature on fire. Ruderman says that despite getting a lot of positive feedback on the measure from constituents, he hasn’t heard a word from legislative colleagues. One fellow lawmaker has told Thielen he likes the proposal, but other than that, radio silence.
Most troublingly, though, the bill hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing before Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran’s Judiciary Committee, and it faces a Tuesday deadline for such action. Ruderman and Thielen have formally requested a hearing, but haven’t received a response.
Ruderman described the bill’s chances in a Thursday meeting with the Civil Beat Editorial Board as “pretty slim” — an assessment with which Thielen agreed.
“The Legislature won’t voluntarily take this up,” she said. “So it’s going to require enough people putting pressure on their legislators across the state … or enough people to vote yes on the (constitutional convention).”
To Thielen’s latter point, if the Legislature refuses to pass the measure, the only other way a direct initiative process could be approved would be through a constitutional convention.
And if the bill’s legislative chances are slim, the possibilities of a constitutional convention are downright anorexic: Hawaii’s last such confab was held in 1978, and lawmakers, unions and the party in charge have consistently shot down efforts to hold another.
In any legislative session, including the current one, lawmakers may pass a proposal for a constitutional convention that then goes before voters for approval. If they don’t do so, a proposal goes on the ballot automatically every 10 years.
The last time that happened was 2008, when voters rejected the idea by a 65 percent to 35 percent margin. The proposal was opposed by, among others, multiple big unions and the Democratic Party of Hawaii, who argued that it would be too expensive and wasn’t needed.
Given the accomplishments of the 1978 convention, making the case for a new one now would seem easy. Back then, convention delegates called for a requirement for an annual balanced state budget, created term limits for the governor and members of state boards and commissions and approved multiple measures intended to address injuries to Hawaiians since the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii 85 years prior.
Despite the long list of potential issues such a convention might take up today, “No one’s out there calling for it,” said Ruderman.
“Part of it may be the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Part of it may be, it’s not just legislators, but people who have access to the Legislature — do they want to cede their special access to the general public to be able to make a decision,” said Thielen. “The overarching power structure, the people who have power don’t necessarily want to give to the people who don’t.”
Thielen and Ruderman are making their case for the bill through media coverage and social media exposure, believing that if they can open a public dialogue on the matter, it would become “less scary, less of a crazy idea.”
“Why should we be afraid of direct democracy?” asks Thielen.
The people of Hawaii deserve to have more influence over their government than the current single-party system provides them, a system that too often returns questionable incumbents to office, election after uncontested election, and that produces a Legislature that is too often deaf to their concerns.
Senate leaders owe the people of Hawaii — the only Western state without a voter initiative law — a hearing on this legislation, and they have five days to schedule one. We’re among many who will be watching closely to see whether they do.