Lee Cataluna: Lawmakers Should Stop Meddling And Start Solving Problems - 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

Imagine having to brace at the start of every legislative session for an avalanche of new ideas somebody else has for how to do your job.

In a meeting with the Civil Beat Editorial Board this past Wednesday, Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto was asked if there were any specific bills in the Legislature that she was watching carefully.

Her response managed to be cagey and candid at the same time.

She’s watching everything. She’s also watching what she says about things, especially the push to establish a lottery that would fund schools. She’s “not getting on that third rail,” she said. Nope. Let the legislators deal with that barrel of monkeys. They brought it up.

In talking about the Legislature, it was clear Kishimoto has found  that sometimes state lawmakers do more harm than good. She said this year, there are close to 600 bills that touch education in some way. Few of these bills came as a request from the DOE. Imagine 600 bills that the DOE has to track and at times defend against, lest folks outside the department make decisions that ultimately make it harder for teachers to teach, students to learn, administrators to lead.

This year, the total number of education bills is actually less than in other years. Some years, there’s close to 800 bills that affect public education in Hawaii in one way or another. Many of those bills Kishimoto doesn’t even hear about until there’s an official document and a bill number that can be tracked. “Overall, there are more bills that I want to stop,” Kishimoto said.

This points to a longtime problem that is, like so many other things, even more obvious in a crisis situation with the state economy in tatters. The Legislature spitballs ideas. These sometimes land like outsider concepts of how to fix complicated problems. Other times, they’re like school projects where the students haven’t done enough research on the actual problem they’re aiming to solve, but they want to say all the right words that will get them extra credit points.

An added feature in the game is to label these bills “watchdog” ideas and thus take credit for being tough and noble.

Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto speaks during board meeting.
DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto says there’s often more bills she’d like to stop than see clear the Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

As Kishimoto framed it, bills rise up in the Legislature that try to tell the DOE what to teach and how to teach it. At the same time, lawmakers talk about school autonomy and empowering principals and teachers.

Another variation on this theme of legislative overreach and needless meddling is very specifically dictating what one person in one state agency can or cannot do. To cite an example, a bill introduced this year that died fairly quickly, Senate Bill 1386,  attempted to prevent the chairperson of the Public Utilities Commission from reassigning the staff members of the two other commissioners. “Staff assigned under this subsection shall report to the commissioner to whom they are assigned and, notwithstanding any law to the contrary, the chairperson shall not dismiss or re-assign any assigned staff member without prior written approval of the affected commissioner.”

Someone thought there needed to be a law for this? That’s pretty specific and has the feel of some brand of retribution.

Then there are the bills that put into statute what is already being done; again, presumably, for lawmakers to take credit for having the power to enforce something that is working.

Every session, the question can be asked about myriad pet projects, unformed ideas or things that seem unimportant compared to the current challenges facing the state: “Is this really the best use of lawmakers’ time and resources?” This will keep happening as long as the measure of success lawmakers use on their campaign literature is how many bills they introduced.

This year, the urgency for inspired ideas to reboot Hawaii’s economy is greater than ever. If half the businesses in town and a bunch of state departments are having to brace every legislative session for what fresh hell is coming their way, that’s a ton of time spent playing defense that could be better spent in a coordinated, collaborative approach to solving problems and moving forward.

Perhaps the fact that the state has no money to spend exacerbates all the “meddling” bills. If there’s no money for legislators to fight over, the easiest thing for them to do to look busy is to pass legislation that makes somebody else have to spend money or tell other people how to do their jobs.

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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)

Great insight to what our politicians spend their days doing, which is getting their hands into everything they can without really knowing the first thing about what the issues are, or how to even start going about solving them, if there is anything that really needs fixing?  Not only is the DOE strapped with monitoring 800 bills that could potentially affect them, but the same goes for UH, DOL and every other government agency and the public that in the end, takes the brunt of these decisions on the chin.  We can only hope that some of these lackluster bill makers take it heart to read articles like this, take a moment to reflect and rather than try to get their names in the headlines, do some real work to solve issues, many of which could be done without government interference, regulation and meddling.  In other words, keep out of the way. 

wailani1961 · 2 years ago

Perhaps, if we had a true two-party system in Hawaii, there would be less meddling? Why is there no representation for alternative viewpoints? 

elrod · 2 years ago

Dedicating gambling proceeds to education is a scam perpetrated by the gambling industry, fed to legislators (with $$), and misrepresented to voters. Look to Oregon and numerous other states to see the real results. At best, gambling revenues will, in fact, be applied to education, and an equal amount, previously allocated to Education in the state budget, will be secreted out, and frittered away on legislators pet expenditures. THERE WILL BE NO NET GAIN IN THE MONEY THE DOE HAS TO SPEND ON OUR KEIKI! It's all a common shell game, and every legislator knows it. Wink, wink. Wake up Hawaii. Stop re-election these same people.

edsumo · 2 years ago

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