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The House Finance, Judiciary and Transportation committees have taken action on dozens of bills since the legislative session began in January. Just last week, the committees passed or killed measures ranging from taxing real estate investment trusts to increasing fines for campaign finance violations to cracking down on drunken driving.
But if you weren’t at their hearings, you wouldn’t have been able to see what they were doing. None of the oral testimony, none of the questions, none of the decision-making.
That’s because the chairs of these committees — Reps. Sylvia Luke, Scott Nishimoto and Henry Aquino, respectively — refuse to allow their hearings to be broadcast on public-access TV stations such as Olelo.
Virginia Beck, who heads the Public Access Room at the Capitol, confirmed they are the only three committee chairs in the House or Senate who have specifically requested no broadcast coverage. Her office determines what hearings are broadcast based on overall public interest or special requests from lawmakers but defers to the committee chairs.
Last fiscal year, 145 hearings, information briefings and sessions were broadcast.
“We are not stifling transparency,” said Nishimoto, who heads the Judiciary Committee, which hears hundreds of bills each session, often dealing with controversial topics.
He said he’s worried that it costs hundreds of dollars per hearing, depending on its length, to broadcast it on public-access stations. He wasn’t opposed to other committees broadcasting their hearings but said it was important to contain costs where possible.
A two-hour hearing on bills before the Housing Committee earlier this month cost about $1,150, including pre- and post-produciton work, according to an invoice from Access Media Services Corp., which the Legislature contracts with to produce its broadcasts.
“It’s a balance,” Nishimoto said.
It’s also a departure. His predecessor, Karl Rhoads, let the Public Access Room broadcast whatever hearings it wanted. He moved from the House two years ago to the Senate, where he now chairs the Water and Land Committee.
Rhoads said he never requested a hearing to be broadcast but also never told the Public Access Room to not do so because many of the bills that go through the Judiciary Committee are of broad public interest and receive emotional in-person testimony.
“People need to know what’s going on,” he said. “If you don’t pay attention to what’s going on in a democracy your interests are generally not taken care of very well.”
Rhoads said it can also be beneficial to the lawmakers.
“People want to see you in action pushing for whatever you’re pushing for,” he said. “Everything you do has a political ramification.”
Aquino did not respond to a message seeking comment.
“The public deserves the right to know what’s going on at the Legislature, as these decisions affect all of us,” said Corie Tanida of Common Cause Hawaii.
“What about our neighbor island friends and family?” she asked.
A round-trip flight on Hawaiian Airlines from Kauai to Oahu next week, for instance, ranges in price from $130 to $570 depending on time of day. Garden Isle residents have been urging the Legislature for years to pass measures relating to pesticides, lifeguards, hotel taxes and other issues.
Janet Mason of the League of Women Voters said legislators from the neighbor islands regularly ask her about broadcast of hearings and floor sessions. The floor sessions are recorded and archived on the Capitol website.
“I think the public is interested in watching these broadcasts and as this relatively new service becomes more widely recognized through its prominence on the Capitol website, interest in these broadcasts will grow,” she said.
If it’s not televised, Tanida said, it’s difficult for people outside urban Honolulu to participate since you’d have to be at the Capitol either to watch the hearing in person or on the closed-circuit TV channels that are only available elsewhere in the Capitol. Lawmakers often watch those in their offices.
Luke, as head of the money committee, touches every bill with a dollar amount attached to it. She said most of the bills go through their subject-matter committee first, where they are often broadcast, discussed and often amended. Doing so again in the Finance Committee would be duplicative, she said, and would take limited resources away from other committees that may want to air their hearings on TV.
“We need to think of better ways of making things accessible,” she said.
Luke says there should be a conversation about whether the closed-circuit Capitol TV that is already recording the hearings to be viewed inside the building could be archived and posted online at little additional cost.
Tanida said that’s a solution that could work for the House, much as it already does for the Senate.
“The hearings don’t have to be televised if the recordings are easily accessible to everyone,” Tanida said. “I like and use this system as I can access it at any time and I can fast forward and rewind as needed.”
Check out past House and Senate hearings in the archives and see what televised hearings are coming up here.