Two ethics reform bills have been approved by a House-Senate conference committee while a third remains afloat.

But another measure, this one changing campaign finance laws, is on hold as lawmakers try to settle their differences.

The lead conferees on the bills are the respective chairs of the House and Senate judiciary committees, Rep. Chris Lee and Sen. Karl Rhoads.

Late Wednesday afternoon the conference committee approved House Bill 170, which clarifies how the state’s laws on fair treatment — not unduly using political influence — and conflict of interest laws apply to legislators and task force members. Its passage this session now appears certain.

State ethics Commission Director Dan Gluck. 11 aug 2016
State Ethics Commission Executive Director Dan Gluck proposed a measure that would exempt task force members from having to file financial disclosure statements. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

HB 170 is supported by the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, Common Cause Hawaii and the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, which proposed it.

“This bill clarifies that task members who are often appointed for their specialized expertise aren’t required to file financial disclosure statements,” the commission’s executive director, Dan Gluck, said Wednesday. “It also clarifies that they are not treated the same as state employees for the purposes of the ethics code.”

Gluck said that task force members are often individuals who are appointed for limited purposes because of their experience. Having them subject to the same requirements as full-time state employees could discourage qualified applicants, he said.

‘Modest Changes’

Two other measures that are part of the Ethics Commission’s package of bills are also advancing.

On Wednesday, the Senate agreed to the House’s changes to Senate Bill 144, meaning that the bill is almost certainly headed to Gov. David Ige for his signature.

SB 144 calls for repealing restrictions on obtaining transcripts of public contested hearings, requiring proof that violation of the state’s lobbying law was committed negligently, and allowing the Ethics Commission to levy a fine as part of a settlement agreement.

In written testimony, Gluck said SB 144 makes “modest changes” to enforcement of the state’s lobbyists law and “harmonizes” the law with the state’s open records law.

A third measure from the commission, House Bill 169, remains in conference committee.

HB 169 bill clarifies provisions of the ethics code by eliminating the “double filing requirement” of gift disclosure statements, reduces an “unnecessary administrative burden” on Ethics Commission staff by only requiring records to be kept for six years after the filing date of each financial disclosure statement, and eliminates language that restricted access to transcripts from contested case hearings.

The bill also calls for providing flexibility for participants mandated to enroll in ethics training sessions.

In the report approving HB 169 as it moved through the House earlier this session, Rhoads wrote that the Judiciary Committee found that “under existing law, certain provisions of the State Ethics Code contain inconsistencies, inefficiencies, and overly burdensome administrative requirements.”

Decreasing Transparency?

Action on House Bill 164, part of a package of bills submitted by the state’s Campaign Spending Commission, was delayed for at least another day.

Lee told Rhoads that the House plans to submit a compromise bill known as a conference draft. But the CD1, as it is called, is still being worked on.

HB 164 is intended to tweak campaign finance laws to make it easier to disclose who is spending money on political advertisements.

Hawaii Campaign spending commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi Nitao speaks in support of Les Kondo during Hawaii State Ethics Commission meeting. 27 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao urged lawmakers to reject surprise changes made to one of the commission’s bills. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Your Committee finds that the democratic election process benefits from transparency in campaign advertising,” the latest report on the bill reads. “Your Committee further finds that well-funded political action committees are capable of influencing elections to a significant degree. This measure will increase transparency and provide additional clarification to campaign advertising laws.”

But HB 164 was altered so significantly by the House in February that the commission’s executive director, Kristin Izumi-Nitao, ended up testifying against her own bill. She said in written testimony that the House amendments “will actually decrease transparency in campaign spending in elections.”

Izumi-Nitao pointed to the 2018 general election in which a couple spent $30,000 on Facebook ads to support multiple candidates on Maui. The law required them to report whenever they spent more than $2,000 on ads.

Contact Key Lawmakers

Under the amended House Draft 1, however, the reporting requirement would be eliminated. There would also be changes to when the disclosures would have to be made.

As well, the HD1 as crafted by the House Judiciary Committee would exempt legislators as well as all other candidates from filing electioneering communications statements.

Izumi-Nitao urged the lawmakers to revert back to the original bill.

Gary Kam, the Campaign Spending Commission’s general counsel, told Civil Beat that the original bill merely sought to clean up language in the state law on electioneering communications.

For example, current law only requires reporting on campaign mailers that go out at bulk rates. The commission wanted the law to apply to all mail rates.

The commission’s goal was to make it easier for people to file statements with the commission every time they spent more than $2,000 on political advertisements, including on social media.

Kam said he did not understand why the bill was changed.

“I never recall any side taking one of our bills and switching something out to actually reduce transparency,” he said, referring to the HD1. “The commission would never do that.”

The Senate last month amended HB 164 more to the commission’s liking, making sure language on electioneering communications was retained. But lawmakers also added additional reporting requirements that Kam described as burdensome.

People who spend more than $2,000 to advertise for a candidate already have to report that within 24 hours after the ad buy. The Senate Draft 1 requires weekly reporting as well.

It is these differences and others between House and Senate versions of HB 164 that need to be cleared up if the bill is to pass this session, which ends May 2.

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