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Hawaii lawmakers were reluctant again this year to strengthen the state ethics code or to tighten the rules lobbyists must follow.
The Hawaii State Ethics Commission tracked more than 16 bills related to ethics and lobbying this past legislative session, which ended May 5. Each and every one died, many without so much as a public hearing.
“It’s really unfortunate,” said Rep. Matt LoPresti, who introduced a measure to restrict lawmakers’ use of their official position for personal benefit.
“I think it sends a bad message to the people about the Legislature’s commitment to open and responsible government when nearly all bills related to ethics and transparency just die a non-transparent death at the end,” he said. “That’s not the way I personally envision how our government should work.”
One of the only measures to get any legs would have funded a task force to undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s lobbying laws. The task force would have offered recommendations to the Legislature before the next session on how to make the statutes more effective.
Les Kondo, who was the commission’s executive director until becoming state auditor May 1, told lawmakers in April that the lobbying laws are outdated and need a complete overhaul.
Senate Bill 3024 didn’t seek new funding for the task force, estimated to cost $80,000. It just would have redirected some of the $130,000 that was appropriated last year for the commission to develop an electronic filing system.
The commission wasn’t able to contract with the Hawaii Information Consortium for the filing system job. The state Office of Enterprise Technology Services is doing the work instead, and it’s not expected to cost more than $50,000, according to Kondo.
Slightly different versions of the bill cleared the House and Senate, but it died in a joint conference committee of lawmakers who failed to iron out a compromise version in the session’s final days.
Businesses and nonprofits spent nearly $1 million in the first two months of the legislative session — January and February — on lobbyists who work to influence Hawaii lawmakers. The reports for March and April aren’t due until May 31.
Measures to make it easier to fine lobbyists who don’t file certain disclosure reports with the Ethics Commission died. So did bills that would have required lobbyists to report all expenses, not just those over $750.
The Legislature almost passed House Bill 813, introduced by LoPresti, which would have closed or narrowed gaping loopholes in the fair treatment law, by separating out certain limitations placed on task-force members from those placed on legislators.
The fair treatment law prohibits a legislator or a state employee from using or attempting to use their official position “to secure or grant unwarranted privileges, exemptions, advantages, contracts, or treatment, for oneself or others.”
Lawmakers were exempt from this when exercising their “legislative function,” which the Ethics Commission generally construes to relate to enacting laws, voting on bills and making speeches during floor sessions or committee hearings.
“I don’t know why half the things here die. It’s a mystery.” — Rep. Matt LoPresti
But in 2012, when the Legislature amended the Ethics Code to exempt members of task forces from certain sections of the statute, lawmakers included themselves as well, and broadened their exemption to include any “official action.”
Bills have been introduced each year since then to close that loophole and return it to “legislative function,” but without success.
Ethics Commission staff attorney Nancy Neuffer said at the commission’s meeting Thursday that there was no real opposition this past session. The measure made it to the final week, but she said it “got lost in the shuffle” at the end of session and died in conference.
LoPresti also didn’t offer any particular insight into why his bill died, or into why the other measures related to ethics and lobbying were deep-sixed.
“I don’t know why half the things here die,” he said. “It’s a mystery.”
Still, LoPresti said he plans to reintroduce HB 813 again next session, which starts in January.
He also wants to push to create a searchable online database of the lobbying expenditure and contribution reports, making it easier for the public to see who is paying to influence what.
Carmille Lim, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said while a lot of good reforms died, she’s glad some ethics-related legislation didn’t pass.
She cited, as examples of bad proposals:
“It’s too bad that HB 813 didn’t pass this year,” Lim said, “but we’re celebrating the death of these aforementioned bills which would have undermined our ethics laws and further winnowed away public trust in the Legislature.”
Lim said good-government advocates will keep an eye on administrative lobbying next session, and plan to meet later this summer to look at legislative priorities for the next biennium.