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If the first half of the legislative session is any indication, proponents of open government might be in for a letdown.
Thursday marked the deadline for bills to pass from one chamber to the other. A bill to conceal the financial information of unpaid state officials from the public is moving forward, and so is a measure to hide the exact compensation of legislative employees, showing salary ranges instead.
Among the ideas that have already died, meanwhile, was a measure that would have required the state to respond to complaints about open records and meetings within six months. The Office of Information Practices currently takes more than twice that long, on average.
The only bill moving forward that advances government transparency is Senate Bill 2257, said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. That measure requires the state tax department to make publicly available the formulas it uses to calculate the revenue impact of proposed legislation.
“There are more bills this session that are problematic for open government,” Black said, noting the shift doesn’t seem to be a “concerted effort,” but rather reactions to outside developments.
The bill to redact dollar amounts in disclosure forms for unpaid board members, for example, was in response to the resignation of board members who didn’t want their finances to become public when the law changed in 2014.
It’s interesting that lawmakers would try to reduce transparency in that instance, Black said, when it doesn’t seem to be causing further problems.
Corie Tanida, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, testified against SB 2136 and SB 2397 — two bills that would have made certain state entities exempt from open meetings requirements. Those bills were later amended to delete the exemptions.
In a Civil Beat interview last month, Tanida noted that an amendment included in House Bill 1853 would have allowed state officials to conceal the addresses of all properties they own in financial disclosure forms. Currently, unpaid members of certain baords may conceal their home address, but must reveal addresses of all other properties they own.
That bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Common Cause supported a bill that aimed to ensure Republicans are better represented on the Reapportionment Commission, which sets boundaries for congressional and legislative elections. It died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.
At the beginning of the session, the five-person House Minority Caucus called for a more transparent government in a state politically controlled by Democrats.
Three of the seven bills in its legislative package were related to transparency. None received even a hearing.
One of those bills, HB 1729, would have required legislative employees to estimate costs and revenues of proposed legislation. More than 40 states already have such a requirement, according to the bill.
“When you can’t see a number on any bill … how does that factor into decision-making?” said Rep. Andria Tupola, the House minority leader.
It’s especially problematic in a state with such a high cost of living, she said, adding that knowing the fiscal impact of a bill in advance could cause lawmakers to change their views.
Another bill in the package, HB 1734, would have created a videoconferencing program to allow neighbor island residents to testify in real time.
“I don’t think any legislator, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on, doesn’t want to see your constituents participate,” Tupola said.
Rep. Gene Ward, another Minority Caucus member, called videoconferencing a “no-brainer” and said the cost of setting the program up was negligible.
Though it wasn’t in the bill package, Ward said he’d like to see the Legislature have its own TV equivalent to C-SPAN. All hearings are played on televisions live within the Capitol, but the outside public can’t watch many of them.
“The thing about Hawaii is that because we’re a one-party state … it’s an opaque institution.” — Colin Moore, director of the UH Public Policy Center
Ward, a member of the House Finance Committee, said the money committee chairs and their staffers in both chambers have an inordinate amount of access to department information used to form the Legislature’s budget. Staffers sometimes know more than lawmakers, he said.
A more transparent solution may be assigning committee members to staffers when they meet with state department representatives, he said.
Since Ward was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1990, he said Hawaii has made a lot of progress in becoming more transparent.
But there hasn’t been much change in the Legislature’s decision-making process. He attributed the state’s exceptionally low voter turnout to a distrust in government.
“Why do people balk at sunlight? Because they want to hide from being seen for some of the things they consider private to only their eyes or their particular responsibilities,” Ward said.
Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center, said advocating for transparency has long been a strength of Hawaii Republicans.
Generally speaking, he said promoting transparency tends to benefit the minority party, which needs to rally public support to accomplish change.
“The thing about Hawaii is that because we’re a one-party state … it’s an opaque institution,” he said.
Moore wasn’t bothered by the bill to exempt unpaid state officials from public disclosure of their finances, but said he didn’t understand the bill to conceal exact compensation for legislative employees.
As a UH employee, Moore said his pay has to be publicly disclosed also.
The number of bills impacting transparency seems to be about the same as in past years, Moore said, but the bills proposed this session reflect “perennial” issues. He cited the now-dead bill to require the state to address open records and meetings complaints quicker.
“The problem is the state government and the Legislature has this tremendous defensiveness, almost hostility” toward people who seek information, Moore said. “There seems to be this attempt to shield the state from anyone who could criticize it rather than welcome their help.”
There’s no bringing back pro-transparency bills that have already died, but Black of the Law Center said lawmakers can at least defeat the anti-transparency measures that are still alive and “keep the status quo.”
“This session certainly has not been positive for open government, but we’ll have to see how things play out,” he said.