A commission tasked with beefing up government transparency in Hawaii kicked off its first regular meeting Wednesday with a two-hour long discussion on proposals to increase reporting requirements for lobbyists and address conflicts of interests with state lawmakers.

The commission debated more than a dozen proposals put forward by Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris. Many of those new proposals focused on providing the public with a better glimpse into potential relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists.

The nine-member Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct is expected to spend the rest of the year examining election laws, campaign finance and other areas for potential government reforms.

Members of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct debated proposals to beef up ethics laws. From left: Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris; Chairman Dan Foley; Janet Mason, from the League fo Women Voters; and former lawmaker Barbara Marumoto. Screenshot/2022

The House created the commission to examine government practices after federal prosecutors charged two former lawmakers with taking part in a bribery scheme to influence wastewater legislation.

Many of the proposals discussed Wednesday targeted lobbyists. Some of the suggestions included requiring lobbyists to disclose a list of bill numbers for which they are lobbying.

“The idea is it would give very clear notice to the public what a lobbyist has worked on and what they are doing,” Harris said.

Currently, registered lobbyists only need to check boxes on their registration forms indicating what topics they might be interested in – like agriculture or the military.

Kristin Izumi-Nitao, the executive director of the Campaign Spending Commission and a commission member, said the proposal is a strong idea that the commission should consider.

Other ideas from Harris include prohibiting lobbyists from holding fundraisers on behalf of lawmakers or advising political campaigns, especially the campaigns of committee chairs who may have jurisdiction over an area in which they lobby.

Other proposals would prohibit lawmakers from also working as lobbyists and require legislators to publicly disclose any financial or business interests they may have with a lobbyist or an organization that lobbies the state.

Much of the discussion around lawmakers focused on shoring up laws that police potential conflicts of interest.

State legislators often ask the House Speaker or Senate President for a ruling on potential conflicts of interest. The reply is almost always that no conflict exists.

In one famous example from 2011, former Rep. Joe Souki, who was also a lobbyist for the chemical industry, asked then-Speaker Calvin Say if he had a conflict before voting on a bill banning plastic bags. Say said there was none.

Harris suggested amending House and Senate rules on conflicts of interest to require rulings on conflicts to go to full floor votes in either the House or Senate.

“It’s a commonsense solution,” Janet Mason, a commissioner and League of Women Voters member, said.

Although it may be commonsense, such a reform could be difficult to implement. The constitution allows the Legislature to set its own rules. Commission Chairman Dan Foley and others raised concerns that infringing on the Legislature’s rulemaking could run afoul of the state constitution.

Harris suggested enacting changes through the law instead.

Another suggestion that may be enacted in statute is a requirement for the Legislature to post legislative allowances online. Lawmakers are allowed to spend just over $13,000 a year to pay for expenses related to their jobs as legislators.

“It’s a fairly large amount of money that is going up across all the different legislators – it’s a significant sum,” Harris said of the proposal. “It’s just to create some level of transparency and confidence those funds are being used appropriately.”

The commission tasked Harris with drafting proposals the commission could consider recommending to the 2023 Legislature. Any of the commission’s proposals would have to be approved by lawmakers. The commission’s final report is due in December.

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