Some Hawaii lawmakers have hosted in-person meetings with lobbyists, business leaders and government officials even while the State Capitol has been closed to the public for the 2021 legislative session.

The public has been barred from entering the Capitol building since March 2020, when Sen. Clarence Nishihara tested positive for COVID-19 after a trip to Las Vegas. 

At the start of the session, constituents were again banned from entering the Capitol and visiting offices and committee rooms. Instead, they testified remotely to legislative committees. However some individuals, including registered lobbyists, have been able to gain an audience with lawmakers in their offices after scheduling appointments.

Legislative leaders maintain that lawmakers are still meeting with constituents in the community and outside the office. Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki have both said that individual lawmakers determine who can get into the Capitol building.

“If people can meet with lawmakers at the Capitol, it defeats the purpose of having a closed Capitol,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Hawaii. “We understand it should be safe for people working there. But people are going in and it’s not just for needed work to be done.”

Capitol 3floor Homeless Solutions Briefing.
The State Capitol’s once bustling hallways are now quiet without members of the public. But lobbyists and other officials have still been able to meet in person with lawmakers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Civil Beat asked the state for a list of individuals who had been granted access to the Capitol in January and February. The request was forwarded to House Speaker Scott Saiki’s office, which said staff only started keeping track of visits in February. 

There were more than 200 visits to the Capitol in February, according to sign-in sheets provided by Saiki’s office. Civil Beat was able to identify 14 lobbyists, who accounted for 33 of those visits. Representatives from the business community made up another dozen or so visits. 

State officials, such as some of Gov. David Ige’s cabinet members, also made trips to the Capitol, as did former governors Ben Cayetano and Neil Abercrombie. The sign-in sheets also include sign-language interpreters to assist with press conferences, as well as local media and camera crews who cover those press conferences and interview Ige and lawmakers.

Workers to service printers, computers, water coolers and elevators were also among those allowed in.

Lobbyists Visit A Closed Capitol

Face-to-face contact is paramount for lobbyists and other political operatives.

Emmanuel Zibakalam, who represents the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association among other clients, had nine in-person meetings with lawmakers in February. That’s the most of any lobbyist who paid a visit last month.

Capitol sign-in sheets show he met with House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti and Reps. Sean Quinlan, Chris Todd, Dan Holt and Cedric Gates. Four of Zibakalam’s meetings were with Quinlan, the chairmen of the House Economic Development Committee. 

In February, the committee heard numerous measures on taxes, gambling, housing, business assistance, energy and broadband. 

Zibakalam declined to say what issues he is advocating for this session. He said he likes to mix in-person visits with virtual meetings with lawmakers.

“We just try to advocate the best we can. It really depends on people’s preferences and what the rules are,” Zibakalam said.

Pono Chong, a former lawmaker and lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, also made multiple visits to the Capitol.

Chong met with Sen. Brian Taniguchi the day the Senate Labor, Culture and the Arts Committee voted to advance a minimum wage proposal. The Chamber of Commerce has voiced opposition to wage increases over worries that such raises could tank business already reeling from the pandemic.

The minimum wage proposal now appears dead in the House. Chong couldn’t be reached for this story.

Chong also logged visits with House Speaker Scott Saiki a day after the Senate committee vote, as well as another meeting with Kouchi on Feb. 18, the eve of a key legislative deadline. 

Two legislative deadlines around Feb. 11 and Feb. 19 were a popular time for lobbyists to visit lawmakers. Those are the dates when dozens of bills either survive and advance through session or drop off without getting to another committee hearing.

The team from Capitol Consultants of Hawaii, one of the state’s largest lobbying firms, met with House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke on Feb. 19, the day scores of measures would be sent to Luke’s committee.

Capitol Consultants represents more than dozens of clients this session, including large corporations like Airbnb, Pfizer and AT&T.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Hawaiian Telcom among current clients. Hawaiian Telcom stopped doing business with Capitol Consultants for lobbying purposes in May 2019, according to the state ethics commission.

Bruce Coppa, president of Capitol Consultants, said he couldn’t recall what was discussed in his meeting with Luke.

The group of lobbyists who met with lawmakers in the State Capitol in February are just a small fraction of the hundreds of individuals registered to lobby government officials.

Lobbyist Blake Oshiro watches joint House Senate meeting from the hallway outside Room 016 Capitol. 25 april 2016.
Lobbyists are having to rethink how they do business since the pandemic closed the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The law defines a lobbyist as anyone who is paid to influence legislation or administrative actions and who spends at least five hours a month doing so.

In a normal legislative session, the Capitol hallways are packed with lobbyists and other advocates. Information is traded near the doorways to committee rooms. Deals are hammered out on the railings overlooking the rotunda.

A quick word with a committee chair after a hearing might provide valuable information, and give individuals a chance to influence policy.

But many of those tools have been removed this session, with limited access to the State Capitol. Even those granted entry must head directly to their meeting place and then leave. They aren’t allowed to wander door to door. And they can’t schmooze in the hallways.

The pandemic has changed the way lobbyists go about their business.

Zibakalam, of Pacific Business Advocates, said that while in-person meetings makes advocacy easier, lobbyists such as himself have had to adapt to meeting remotely.

Coppa said that while livestreamed hearings have made listening for bill amendments easier, not having daily access to the State Capitol and being able to catch committee chairs after votes to talk over some of those amendments has made the job more difficult.

“You don’t have that interaction. And you try to call them — good luck. You’ve got to make appointments with these people now,” Coppa said.

Who Gets Access?

Since the legislative session began, Ma — the Common Cause director and a registered lobbyist who met with lawmakers last year and in January — has been raising concerns about special interest groups gaining access to lawmakers that would otherwise be unavailable to the public.

In an interview Monday, Ma said she stopped visiting the Capitol when she “realized the hypocrisy of the idea.”

Ma acknowledged that constituents are still able to meet lawmakers outside the Capitol building, but believes in-person meetings with lawmakers in their offices raises an issue of unfair access.

The in-person visits during a pandemic highlight a divide between those who have political connections and those who don’t.

“Not everyone is going to be saying, ‘Can I meet with you at your office?’ They’ll hear it’s closed and take that at face value,” Ma said.

At a Civil Beat panel discussion in January, Saiki said that members of the House were instructed not to hold in-person meetings.

“The building is closed to non-legislators and non-legislative staff,” Saiki said in January.

He said that lobbyists would not be allowed to enter the building, and added that House members were asked to only hold remote meetings or make phone calls.

Asked how guests were able to meet in person after those instructions were given, Saiki now says that the situation with COVID-19 has changed. 

“There were some requests for in-person meetings. We had to weigh that with the fact that vaccinations had begun occurring at the Capitol,” Saiki said.

Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki watch a large screen tv as Governor Ige gives the State of State address.
Senate President Ron Kouchi, left, and House Speaker Scott Saiki, right, have let individual lawmakers determine who can visit the State Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

More than 500 legislators and their staff were vaccinated as part of the state’s phase 1b vaccine rollout.

Capitol visitors are required to check in through the basement lobby and pass a temperature scan. The House and Senate sergeants-at-arms verify who the individual is and wait for staff from a lawmaker’s office to escort the visitor.

Saiki said that representatives need to pre-register guests with the sergeant-at-arms before any visits. He said that while he might weigh in on whether someone should be granted a visit, the decision is mostly left up to individual lawmakers.

Kouchi described a similar process for senators, and said they ultimately decide who gets to visit.

Asked how lawmakers decide who to meet, Kouchi said of his fellow senators that, “Everyone is making their own determinations.”

“I can tell you when I return to Kauai there are people who may want to set up virtual meetings, which I do. There are persons who want to meet in person, which I do. I do leave the Capitol as well (for meetings),” Kouchi said.

Kouchi said that senators have been encouraged to meet with constituents in the community as well as at events so long as they can maintain social distancing. He said the Senate does not have guidelines on meetings since pandemic restrictions may vary by county.

Saiki also said that it’s not likely the Capitol would be open to the public until at least the end of the current session in May. He and Kouchi plan to meet with Ige and state Comptroller Curt Otaguro at that time to determine when the Capitol should be reopened to the public.

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