Rep. Gene Ward: Is Hawaii's Legislature Corrupt? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Gene Ward

Rep. Gene Ward (R-Hawaii Kai) is a former entrepreneur trainer and consultant with the United Nations in Africa and former Peace Corps volunteer in Asia. He represents the newly numbered District 18 per the 2022 Reapportionment Commission Maps.

What were former Sen. Kalani English and former Rep. Ty Cullen thinking when they thought they could get away with accepting bribes and never get caught?

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Was this an issue of corruption due to personal character flaws, or are there deeper structural flaws in the state’s legislative process? Or could it be both?

For example, the accused senator was said to have bragged that “killing a bill is easy.” But what is missing here is, why it is so easy to kill a bill and get paid for it?

Something is missing in the system that allowed this to happen.

First, the structure of the Hawaii House of Representatives is in the shape of a pyramid with the speaker of the House at the top. He has total control of the legislative agenda. His leadership team of a vice speaker, majority leader, majority floor leader and chair of the House Finance Committee (“The Big 5”) implement his agenda through 18 committee chairs who oversee passing or killing bills, often at the speaker’s behest.

This small number of people exert an inordinate amount of influence in the legislative process, and the two defrocked legislators were in positions that led to corruption.

House Finance Chair Silvia Luke during meetings held at the Capitol, Room 305. 5 april 2016.
Because of the way the House is structured, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke is among those who wield a great deal of power at the Capitol — an “inordinate” amount, the author argues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Some reasons committee chairs could go to the dark side:

  • They are given too much authority to pass or kill a bill and are only accountable to the speaker, not the members of their committees.
  • They have tremendous influence over their members. Chairs are held in great deference. For example, if a member votes “no” or “with reservations” on a bill, they do so gingerly and apologetically, as to not upset the chair.

Secrecy and the lack of transparency are other flaws associated with the legislative process:

  • For example, committee hearings are first conducted openly but then in secret when it comes to passing or killing a bill. The fate of most bills has been determined before the hearing even begins.
  • Because of this, some chairs don’t care to hear much testimony from the public and have a habit of speeding up hearings by subtly suggesting testifiers simply say, “I stand on my written testimony.” The public hears nothing about the merits of a piece of legislation.

Shutting down testimony saves time but does great harm because the public does not have access to any written testimony until after the hearing. Even legislators don’t have access to written testimony until it is released by the vice chairs about 10 minutes before the hearing.

A robust discussion by a committee could counter this lack of information to the public and legislators, but most chairs discourage, rather than encourage members to ask questions. When a few members do ask questions, they are reminded to be brief otherwise they will be cut off, much like members of the public are when their testimony exceeds two minutes.

Committee hearings are thus a partial façade of the democratic discourse, and even when 90% of the testimony is against a bill, the chair and members often pass it anyway. A flabbergasted public must go away thinking, “What’s the use of participating in the legislative process?”

Because the Legislature is exempt from “sunshine laws,” voting during Covid has been discussed in Zoom “breakout rooms” — out of public sight to discuss which bills will pass or be killed per the recommendation of the chair. A bill is killed by the pronouncement of the chair alone.

Pre-Covid decision-making discussions were often held out in the hallway outside the hearing room — tucked safely away from public view.

So, what can be done with flawed individuals and a flawed system that lacks transparency, accessibility, and public input?

The House of Representatives’ Rules should be amended to make committee hearings more transparent and members more accountable with reforms that:

  • Require legislators to be engaged in selecting the bills to be heard and committee chairs to call for a vote on bills that are killed.
  • Forbid committee chairs to instruct testifiers to just “stand on their testimony.” Instead, testifiers would be required to succinctly state their case before the public.
  • Make testifiers’ written testimony readily available to legislators and the public 48 hours before any hearing.
  • Require decision-making discussions by committees to be made in public and not behind closed doors, or in virtual “breakout rooms” on Zoom.

So, is Hawaii’s Legislature corrupt? “Yes, kind of, but …”

It has some structural flaws and temptations that draw legislators to misbehave much like a passerby seeing keys left in the ignition of a car. He becomes a thief because he could not overcome the temptation. A few structural reforms could go a long way to restoring the public trust and the dignity of legislators.

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About the Author

Gene Ward

Rep. Gene Ward (R-Hawaii Kai) is a former entrepreneur trainer and consultant with the United Nations in Africa and former Peace Corps volunteer in Asia. He represents the newly numbered District 18 per the 2022 Reapportionment Commission Maps.

Latest Comments (0)

While I agree that there is issue with Chairs recommending that testifiers "stand on their written testimony," the issue is even deeper. Of great concern is the sheer number of legislators that clearly and blatantly do not engage in the hearings and ask questions that make it clear that they've not read, or have failed to understand at a basic level, the proposed legislation (the author of this piece included). All the people need to do is go to the youtube channels for either chamber and watch ANY of the videos... not any one in particular, literally any of them, and they will see a disengaged and unconcerned legislature, with VERY few exceptions.

808deserves.better · 6 months ago

Thankyou Gene for your openess, and thankyou Civil Beat for providing this forum for us. For over thirty years i have been hosting small groups of visitors. We go to authentic places, teach respect and culture. Meet the local people. And support local family businesses, pouring many thousands of dollars to family eateries as one example. We do not go to crowded areas, we are locally owned, all the money from the visitors goes into our local economy. As we tried to recover from the pandamic the city council north shore and east shore representatives pushed through a bill banning all tour vans from almost every beach and park in their area. Just to pull over in a legal spot and let the guests out for five minutes subjects me to arrest and huge fines! Once visitors realize it is against the law to see Hawaii with a local guide, they will be forced to rental cars and hundreds of millions of dollars will be taken from locals and given to rental car companies. There was no true discussion or studies, no creative management ideas where any problem existed, just a pre- decided bill pushed through not based on facts or reality. Something here is so wrong. Love

Greg · 6 months ago

Please share more about the ins and outs of the legislature. How does it work in the Senate? Same kind of story? I hope you write a guide for concerned citizens. Thank you Rep Ward!

NoFreedomWithoutObligations · 6 months ago

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