Lee Cataluna: Hawaii Legislature Should Focus On One Thing - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org


There’s the old “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” analogy to describe useless activity in the middle of a crisis.

Some of what the Legislature is considering is worse than that. It’s more like ordering hors d’oeuvres and trying to get comfy while the Hawaii economy is sinking.

Every year at the start of the legislative session, a favorite game is to comb through the bills and look for the ones that stand out for being particularly egregious and self-serving.

Often times, nothing comes of these oddball ideas, but that is at least in part because someone in the media has ferreted out the awful idea and made the support of the bad bill look shameful in the public eye. (The late great Rod Tam and his “naps and snacks” bill is often the cited example.)

This year, though, with so many urgent concerns and five-alarm crises, any measure that doesn’t directly lead to saving Hawaii from the effects of the pandemic looks pretty fringe.

Several bills were introduced that would circumvent the recent State Ethics Commission rules that ban lawmakers from accepting food items and small gifts, euphemistically termed “gifts of aloha” from lobbyists. The argument is that a box of manapua will not influence a lawmaker’s vote, but refusing it will be a breach in Hawaii-style etiquette.

The thing about rules is that every exception lessens their impact.

It may be socially awkward to decline an offer of food in Hawaii — journalists are supposed to do this too, though I’ve seen media people chowing down while on story assignments — but having an absolute rule that says “no gifts, no food” makes it easier to decline the offer.

“Thank you so much, but I’m not allowed. No, I cannot make plate and take home, but thanks so much. Let’s just talk story about your concerns, shall we?”

In years past, there were anecdotes about lawmakers and their staff members not only accepting lavish gifts of food and swag, but actually keeping score of the largess of different lobbying factions, like, “So-and-so only brought one box of baked manapua, but the other guys brought three dozen, both baked and steamed, plus pork hash and gau gee.”  

It became a competition, like vying for a blue-ribbon basket at the county fair. Funny, but troubling at the same time.

As the ethics rules currently stand, a state employee or legislator can’t accept any gift being given to influence their actions or their decisions. Cash, gift cards and free tickets to concerts and sporting events are generally prohibited.

However, things like a lei (but obviously, not the kind made out of money), promotional items like pens, calendars or tote bags that have no resale value, and items that are also available to the public at large are OK.

Not mentioned, but also allowed: A nice handwritten thank you note, a phone conversation from a constituent, reserved parking at the elementary school when invited to speak at career day. There are lots of “gifts of aloha” that are actually about aloha and not about free meals and swag.

As Civil Beat legislative reporter Blaze Lovell wrote, there are several bills with the goal of expanding, or circumventing. the ethics rules to allow more valuable gifts and bigger bentos.

There are lots of “gifts of aloha” that are actually about aloha and not about free meals and swag. 

Another bill that would make work-life more comfortable for lawmakers dreaming of higher office is one that takes power from voters.

Chad Blair reported on a bill that would allow candidates for governor who make it to the general election to pick their own lieutenant governor rather than have voters select their running mate for them in the primary. The thought behind this effort is to avoid the sort of internal friction that arose between Gov. David Ige and his Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, and between Ige and his third LG, Josh Green (Doug Chin was the second LG, but they got along). 

The idea is to foster a “greater sense of cohesion” in the governor’s office and protect the state’s executive leader from a No. 2 who may not always agree and may have plans and ideas of their own.

But can you imagine if Ige had been able to pick his own LG rather than be saddled with people who actually questioned his decisions? Yikes.

Hawaii’s response to the pandemic would have been immeasurably weaker had Green not pushed back against Ige’s insular nature and started taking a leadership role in the state’s COVID-19 efforts. There needs to be some healthy friction in the relationship between governor and LG. Otherwise, the LG would just be the gov’s manapua-fetcher and “gifts of aloha” caddy.

These sorts of efforts to make serving in state government a little more comfy and deluxe may have little chance of going anywhere, but they have no business showing up at all this year. The focus should be on how to survive the pandemic and how to build Hawaii back into a stronger, healthier place on the other side.


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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org


Latest Comments (0)

Good piece, but you didn't mention the new alcohol tax bill which is gaining momentum.  It may be easier to target "vice" taxes like cigarettes and alcohol because not everyone partakes in them and you can temper the motivation by using groups like MADD to speak up about how additional taxes may lessen drinking and driving, but in reality it's just another tax and that is the problem, as you point out.  Our tired and unimaginative legislature coming up with yet another way to tax the people and stifle business, when they should be doing the exact opposite.  The alcohol tax bill does nothing to help small businesses and rather than looking in the mirror at ways the state can trim it's bloated budget and renegotiate it's liberal union contracts to lessen the overall burden on businesses and taxation, their best effort is to come up with a usury tax on alcohol.  That's shameful and should be headline news so that those proposing it are identified and asked to explain their rational to everyone looking for help getting through and out of this economic calamity.  It's not out of character for our politicians, but the timing is particularly bad. 

wailani1961 · 11 months ago

Exactly, you would think that was the most important issue facing our state right now.  Not the economy, not education, it's whether to accept manapua or not.  

LindaU · 11 months ago

No gifts, no food, no swag. It's simply not needed, encourages favoritism and partisanship, and has no role in local or state government.

Scotty_Poppins · 11 months ago

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