Danny De Gracia: We Urgently Need To Reopen Hawaii's Capitol Building - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

One of the first major casualties of Hawaii’s COVID-19 pandemic was public access and engagement with our elected government.

Nearly a year later, the Hawaii Legislature is still closed to the public. As the 2021 session now heads into the critical period of “second crossover” — the deadline for bills to clear the chambers — having the state Capitol locked to locals puts democracy at a significant disadvantage.

Last year, when the novel coronavirus started to erupt across Oahu, it made sense to temporarily close the physical offices of the Capitol until strategies could be developed to keep people from getting infected. Today, the situation is vastly different from early 2020 when we didn’t have the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines, thermal scanners for screening, plexiglass dividers, and mass availability of personal protective equipment.

Honolulu, which is presently in Tier 3 of its reopening strategy, now routinely allows people to shop at non-essential businesses with masks on and spaced six feet apart. You can even eat in a restaurant or have personal care services like a haircut or a manicure, things that were completely unthinkable in early 2020. But in spite of all these “privileges,” if you want to connect with your elected state officials, you’ll either need to email them, call their offices, get a Zoom link, or be a high profile personality with an exemption to get into the Capitol.

One of the beautiful things about the “old normal” processes of the Capitol was that the public could always make use of access to the building as a means to enforce legislative transparency or score policy turnarounds, even in spite of agendas being predetermined by the majority.

The most traditional tactic that people are aware of is “camping” the Capitol corridors or even the lobbies of a legislator, so that it forces a face-to-face confrontation where one can ask why a bill isn’t being heard or why a bill is still moving forward.

COVID-19 was a valid reason for closing the Capitol to members of the public in the 2020 session. It should be reopened now. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One could intercept lawmakers as they walked out of a caucus meeting or floor session, and tell them “could you sign this, please?” and because of their habit of mindlessly signing so many documents, the more busy legislators might robotically endorse a petition that could be used to induce their unwitting colleagues into falling in line to support out of peer pressure.

During conference committee, public presence in the building was also a great way to ensure quorum is available for bills that legislators might be lukewarm about; some bills die simply because chairs and managers just don’t have the motivation to show up for all the measures to which they’ve been assigned.

Five minutes before a conference reconvene on a key bill, the public could easily see which lawmakers had shown up and which were absent, and use the conference room phone to call every single person assigned to that committee to show up to vote. This tactic, as simple as it may seem, has passed countless measures in the big square building over the years.

Today, Hawaii’s public has to interact with their legislators as if they were in a dysfunctional long-distance relationship. It’s easier to ignore the public when they’re just an e-mail in your inbox or a voicemail on your phone, and it’s easy to feel good about voting bad when the only people you have to face are your fellow colleagues around the building.

There Are Ways To Reopen Safely

We can safely allow the public reasonable access to the Capitol building again with temperature screening, social distancing and wearing masks. We can also make use of occupancy limitations to add an extra layer of safety. As essential government, members of the Legislature and their staff are also all eligible to be vaccinated as a defense against COVID-19.

If the public can safely shop in hordes at Waikele Shopping Outlets or eat at restaurants in Ala Moana under Tier 3 protocols, there is absolutely no reason why we should deny them the ability to participate in-person during the most important stretch of the 2021 legislative session at the Capitol.

The pandemic has forced us to make many sacrifices and shortcut many things, but we need to let the public have a part in the policymaking process again. If we continue to disenfranchise locals, we risk the danger of embittering the population to a point where they no longer peaceably participate or submit to government, and that is something none of us want.

Many of the legislative offices have signs on their doors that proclaim “E komo mai” as a testament to an atmosphere of public welcome we once had in the people’s house.

We have been so aggressive in reopening things around this state in a mad rush to feel normal again that we have missed out on the most important reopening of all – our elected government.

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

So I can go to work (if I have  job), a church (even if it's full of covid), a bar (oh, boy!), a wedding, a gym, and the beach, but I can't go see my legislators in person? Glad to see state and city governments taking such good care of themselves during this trying time. Maybe "pandemic isolation" is their excuse for all the bad legislation they're passing. But lucky for them, we can't see them face to face to ask why they didn't pass  the $15/hr minimum wage and lots of other bills we desperately need. Can't wait for the 2022 elections!

MW · 1 month ago

The same argument can be made for the Honolulu City Council.  While the public is given the opportunity to participate electronically, all testimony is required to be given at the beginning of the meeting.  This means that the public does not have the opportunity to provide input on comments made by the administration until the next meeting.  In the case of budget bills, department directors often provide clarification on their particular line items, and a testifier's oral comments could address the additional information provided.It would be easy enough to allow testimony on all agenda items as the item is discussed, as was done in the past.  In addition, in-person participation should be allowed sooner rather than later.

Natalie_Iwasa · 1 month ago

I symbolically want it to open. But on an average prep pandemic day, the people in the building were government employees, paid lobbyists, media, and a few dedicated public advocates. 99.9 percent of the population never set foot in the building.The upgrade in technology Covid forced will actually be a net benefit for the public in the long run.

Keala_Kaanui · 1 month ago

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