We’re never short of people and groups seeking to shape the work of each Hawaii legislative session to their own benefit.

Our state is no different than any other in that regard. But what continues to set Hawaii apart is its lack of solid laws to regulate that lobbying. This leaves our legislative process vulnerable to corruption, particularly in a state government controlled entirely by one political party.

As Civil Beat’s Nathan Eagle reported last week, companies and organizations spent nearly $1 million to lobby the Legislature in the first two months of this year’s session. Hawaii law gives the public the right to know how much those concerns are spending on lobbyists and who is doing the work. But that’s pretty much where it ends.

State Capitol.
When it comes to lobbying, it’s time for a clearer accounting of who has access to the Hawaii State Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Which lawmakers are the lobbyists meeting with? What bills are they targeting? If the organization or its lobbyists don’t submit public testimony on a bill, then there’s no way to know — they can keep their role in the process secret.

The Center for Public Integrity recognized that problem with tracking whose fingers are pulling plums out of the legislative pie when it gave Hawaii a D- in 2012 for laws regulating lobbying.

In response, a local group of leading lawmakers, lobbyists, watchdog group leaders and journalists convened to brainstorm solutions. They put forward a report outlining a number of potential modest reforms. It has largely been ignored.

The report included basic ideas such as making legislators’ calendars public to allow citizens to know who they’re meeting with, and disclosing the authorship of legislation, so that the public can know when a bill is introduced at the request of lobbyists, unpaid advocates or others.

Executive Branch Lobbying

Unfortunately, this lack of disclosure doesn’t end with lobbying the Legislature. People lobbying the executive branch of government don’t have to register with the state or disclose their expenditures at all.

While some government observers dispute that this is the case, Civil Beat’s Ian Lind illustrated that “blind spot” in Hawaii lobbying law last year in a column about Ciber, an information technology firm that billed Hawaii more than $8 million in fees, failed to deliver a new accounting system for the state Department of Transportation and then used a high-powered lobbying firm to avoid consequences.

The State of Hawaii sued the firm last year in an effort to recover some of those funds, alleging “inappropriate political influence.” But virtually nothing about the business’s lobbying work with Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s administration was disclosed to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission; Ciber only disclosed nominal amounts it paid for legislative lobbying work.

Legislation passed the House on Tuesday that would create a formal legislative task force to recommend reforms of our state lobbying laws before the 2017 session. Senate Bill 3024 already has passed the Senate; due to amendments added in the House, it now goes to conference comittee for further consideration. The bill’s chances of final passage appear to be strong.

Two respected voices in Eagle’s report put the issue of lobbying reform in proper perspective, and their words bear repeating. Piilani Kaopuiki of the League of Women Voters said, “Tighter and clear laws provide all players the rules for fair play.” Steps in that direction by the task force, she added, could “help to rebuild public confidence in a practice that has been tarnished.”

State Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo simply said that the state’s outdated lobbying laws are in sore need of a top-to-bottom overhaul.

Legislators should pass SB 3024, and Gov. David Ige should sign it. The task force members, who would be appointed by the Ethics Commission, should waste no time in drawing on the ample source material documenting the shortcomings of Hawaii’s lobbying laws.

It’s too late to tackle real reform in the current session. But lawmakers can make sure that this is the last year our lobbying regulations fall so far short of providing the transparency we need. And they can start repairing the corrosive cumulative effect this lack of transparency has had on how voters view the work of our state government and our legislators.

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