Some Hawaii lawmakers want to be able to accept small food gifts again, a practice that was banned recently by a state watchdog agency.

The Hawaii State Ethics Commission approved rules that prevent lawmakers from accepting “gifts of aloha,” generally small food items, especially from lobbyists, who along with their clients have often gifted items of food like manapua and musubi to lawmakers and their staffs.

The new rules were meant to clarify several laws dealing with ethics in state government, and also to prevent officials in positions of authority from accepting gifts that might appear improper.

Chair Rep John Mizuno and Rep Scott Nishimoto during Death with Dignity measure voting.
House Vice Speaker John Mizuno defended a proposal that wouldn’t require lawmakers to report gifts of small food items. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But the ban has given rise to new questions concerning the circumstances in which a legislator may or may not accept food items given to them out of courtesy. For example, what happens if a constituent who is not a lobbyist offers a bottle of water? Or a small bento lunch?

“I don’t think there is a right answer when it comes to how to devise this system,” Dan Gluck, executive director of the Hawaii Ethics Commission, said during a commission meeting last month. “I think there’s going to have to be some lines drawn somewhere and reasonable people can disagree about where those lines ought to be.”

A handful of bills introduced in the Legislature this session would draw those lines at $25, the amount at which lawmakers were generally allowed to accept food gifts prior to the rules going into effect in November.

So far, only a House measure that would exempt those small gifts from a mandated reporting requirement has been scheduled for a hearing.

The House Government Reform Committee debated House Bill 645 Wednesday morning but put off a preliminary vote on the measure until Friday.

The Ethics Commission opposed the bill. Kee Campbell, a commission attorney, said the measure would create more confusion and wouldn’t actually allow lawmakers to accept small gifts since it only touches a part of the law dealing with gift disclosure requirements.

There’s a similar bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 991, but it has not yet been granted a hearing.

The two bills are authored by Rep. Mark Nakashima and Sen. Karl Rhoads, both chairs of their respective chambers’ judiciary committees which would have a hand in moving the measures along through the session.

HB 645 says that meals or beverages accepted at an “informational meeting or presentation or goodwill event” do not need to be reported so long as the meals come from a non-lobbyist. But Campbell said trying to define those events may be confusing.

House Vice Speaker John Mizuno said that the point of the bill is to create clearer guidance on what items lawmakers can accept and when.

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“There was confusion on what we could and couldn’t do,” Mizuno said. “A lot of the members were concerned when we’d go to an event with our constituents — it’d have nothing to do with lobbying, just talking about constituent issues. We couldn’t accept a $2 bento because it could look like we were being asked a favor.”

“The $2 bentos and that sort of thing is not the primary concern of this law,” Campbell said of the state’s gift statutes.

Campbell encouraged the legislators to work out individual cases with the commission instead of trying to resolve their issues with a new law.

Mizuno later added that giving small food gifts or even bottles of water is part of local culture.

That sentiment is echoed in another House proposal, House Bill 1163, that would allow lawmakers to accept gifts valued under $25 while banning most others of higher value. Nakashima also introduced that measure.

A preamble to the bill notes gift regulations for federal judges, which exclude food items and other refreshments offered for social hospitality.

“Applying these same guidelines to the Legislature, the Legislature believes that the Hawaiian custom of offering tokens of aloha is acceptable,” the bill reads.

The bill also lowers the threshold to report gifts from $200 to $100.

Senate Bill 1326 would also allow lawmakers to accept any gifts valued under $25.

House Bill 1108 would do the same and specifies that lawmakers and their staffs would be able to accept those gifts from lobbyists and the clients they represent.

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