Hawaii lawmakers are a step closer to lifting Gov. David Ige’s nearly year-long suspension of laws meant to provide transparency to the government.

The Senate Health Committee on Wednesday unanimously voted to advance Senate Bill 134, which would prohibit the governor and county mayors from using emergency powers to suspend access to public records and vital public health statistics.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, chairman of the health committee, said that while it’s important for the executive branch to have powers that help to deal with emergency situations, discussing the limits of those powers is also important.

“When we have an extended emergency period like we’ve had so far — where some semblance of life, albeit altered, has returned back to normal — I do think its appropriate for us to have a discussion about appropriate guardrails of that emergency authority,” Keohokalole said shortly before the vote.

Senator Jarrett Keohokalole speaks during crossover floor session.
Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole speaking during a floor session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Ige first suspended the public records law and Hawaii’s meetings law in March. He partially walked back that suspension in April.

More than 20 legislators indicated in questionnaires last year that they did not support Ige’s suspension of the records law. But earlier this year, leaders in the Legislature were not sure whether or not a measure to overturn the suspension would gain traction.

The governor has previously said that suspending the law was necessary since Hawaii government agencies were inundated by requests from all over the globe.

Update: In a written statement Wednesday afternoon, the governor’s office said that the laws suspended in the emergency proclamations “are tailored and responsive to the conditions created by the COVID-19 global pandemic.”

An unnamed executive agency would testify on the bill at a later date.

SB 134, introduced by Sen. Dru Kanuha, received written testimony in support from the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter, the news blog All Hawaii News, the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, the Big Island Press Club and two individuals.

Kanuha’s office said he wasn’t available to talk about SB 134. But in a written statement he said he introduced the bill because one of his constituents couldn’t get documentation they needed for a new job and was ultimately unable to secure the position.

No one opposed the bill at Wednesday’s hearing. And while the state Office of Information Practices took no position on the measure, Cheryl Kakazu Park, the OIP director, wrote a six-page letter to lawmakers detailing the office’s and the public’s struggle dealing with the suspension of the Uniform Information Practices Act, the formal name for the public records law.

The office is still having trouble getting agencies to provide substantive responses to UIPA appeals, Park wrote in testimony to lawmakers. Without those responses, the OIP has trouble determining whether or not an agency had the right to withhold records requests.

Park notes that while many agencies have responded to records requests in a timely manner, others have not and don’t plan to while the law is suspended.

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“Some unanswered UIPA requests of particularly high public interest have been reported on in the media, while many other unanswered requests are of interest only to the requester. The UIPA’s purpose, however, is to give the public access to government records regardless of whether the request is of high public interest or specifically of interest mainly just to the requester, and for many requesters the UIPA has not been fulfilling that purpose over the past year,” Park wrote.

In addition to prying open the records law, SB 134 would also prevent the governor and mayors from withholding public health statistics.

In the early days of the pandemic, data on how COVID-19 spread through communities and areas of the islands was hard to come by.

Some lawmakers also say they had difficulty getting information from executive departments. The Senate’s COVID-19 committee made dozens of requests for information to departments related to the state’s pandemic response, though the panel was occasionally stonewalled by the administration.

SB 134 will now advance to the Senate Judiciary Committee. If it clears that panel, it would need to win approval by the full Senate in March as well as the House at a later date.

Rep. Matt LoPresti introduced a similar measure in the House, House Bill 797. It was still not scheduled for a committee hearing as of Wednesday afternoon and would need to clear its first committee by Thursday to meet a legislative deadline.

Join us for a virtual Legislative Update event to check-in with a panel of lawmakers halfway through the session:

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