How To Make Hawaii’s Legislature Work Better For The Public - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Authors

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Keona Blanks

Keona Blanks is an editorial page intern for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at kblanks@civilbeat.org.

In 1975 the Hawaii Legislature passed the Sunshine Law — Hawaii’s open meetings law — in the name of democracy.

Opinion article badgeThe law governs the way in which all state and county boards must conduct their official business. It includes holding meetings in public, that six calendar day’s notice be given for the meetings, and that the minutes be made readily available to the public, with some exceptions.

It was a significant development in efforts to improve the operations of state and local governments.

Passage of this measure will be among the most noteworthy accomplishments of this legislative session,” proclaimed state Rep. Andrew Poepoe during a 1975 floor session. “We feel this sunshine will mark the dawning of a new era in which we will strive to perfect our form of government here in Hawaii.”

Unfortunately, the Legislature explicitly exempted itself from the sunshine, which remains the case to this very day under Hawaii Revised Statute 92-10. That makes Hawaii one of only 13 state legislatures that have explicit exceptions from the open meetings laws.

Those exemptions have allowed lawmaking to often operate in the dark, including on major decisions with significant repercussions for the state.

One prominent example is the $2.4 billion rail bailout deal state lawmakers struck in private to rescue the Honolulu rail project in 2017. The Legislature paid for the deal in part from a 13-year increase in the statewide hotel room tax, but did so without sufficient public input.

There are many more examples. But now, lawmakers and voters alike have a rare opportunity to cast more light into the big square building on Beretania.

A new, blue-ribbon lobbying and ethics reform commission tasked with making recommendations for government transparency and accountability has been working this year to find ways to instill greater public confidence in their government.

Their recommendations to the Legislature are due by the end of this year, with the idea being that lawmakers consider complementary legislation in the 2023 session that starts in January.

It’s no small matter. It took a huge embarrassment for the state House of Representatives to form the Commission on Improved Standards of Conduct: the indictments and ultimate convictions of two former state legislators who accepted bribes to influence legislation.

In the spirit of reform, here are some ideas to improve transparency and accountability at the Legislature.

Provide More Notification

It’s obvious that the 76-member Legislature is not the same as the much smaller county councils, that are subject to the open meetings law. The Legislature is much larger in membership, requires neighbor island members to fly to the State Capitol in Honolulu, and formally meets for only part of each year, for example.

That means that some elements of the Sunshine Law might not work for the Legislature, which meets for only 60 days a year. Requiring six-day’s notice for hearings can be daunting for legislators who have only so much time in session.

But the Legislature itself is actually in session from the third Wednesday in January to late April or early May, meaning that legislators are together for nearly four months, not just those 60 days. Lawmakers and their staff also work and meet frequently throughout the year.

Those 60 days represent the days when the House and Senate convene on their respective chamber floors, usually around midday. While those days are required by the Hawaii Constitution, it is not stipulated when they must be held, other than in a calendar year.

April-May 2022 session calendar
The small, numbered boxes on the Hawaii Legislature’s 2022 session calendar for April and May mark the required 60 meeting days. If it wanted too, however, the Legislature could extend sessions and also add more recess periods in order to get its work done. 

Therefore, one possible way to provide more time for deliberations and public input is to extend the legislative session. The Hawaii Constitution allows for extending sessions by 15 days, which could accommodate the six-day minimum requirement for hearings.

Lawmakers could also require that bills be posted with greater notice and visibility. They could even take longer recesses — that is, periods when they are not meeting in session and holding hearings and briefings — to get more work done. The law only requires that they recess “not less than five days” at some period between the 20th and 40th day of a regular session.

Do More Work

If they wanted to, lawmakers could also consider themselves full-time rather than part-time state employees. Many do hold other jobs, of course, but many also effectively work year-round as legislators anyway, attending to constituent needs, public events and other activities related to their legislative duties — not to mention fundraising and campaigning.

For this work, they are currently paid $62,604 a year plus health and retirement benefits — not bad for “part-time” work. In January their salary will grow to $72,348 and by 2024 it will be $74,160.

There are also generous legislative allowances, and lawmakers who do not live on Oahu get a $225 per diem for overnight expenses such as lodging and food. Air travel is billed separately but paid for by the state via a restricted-use purchasing card.

Some taxpayers might grumble about having to pay legislators more to work more, but it might well be worth the investment and serve the public’s interests better, not just what’s become convenient for lawmakers.

Decide Bills In Public

The most frustrating period of any legislative session — for the media and the public, and a lot of legislators too — is the last two weeks leading to the final week of adjournment.

Called conference committee, it’s the time when bills no longer involve open public input, even when the content of legislation is altered dramatically. The decision making is done behind closed doors, too, and when the clock runs out on that last Friday lawmakers say, “Sorry, we ran out of time.”

It’s a lazy excuse. Even during the early part of session, when testimony is taken, the real discussion over the merits of bills is not done in public.

Frank and candid discussion is important, and lawmakers like to do that without the public’s watchful eyes. But there would also be a tremendous public benefit to forcing lawmakers to speak directly to the public as they ultimately make their decisions.

That’s another reason that the Legislature should make explicitly clear to the public who asks for bills to be introduced in the first place, whether it’s an obscure neighborhood board member or the lobbyist for a major corporation. Bills should not be anonymously introduced “by request of another party.” That matter is also rightly on the radar of the Commission on Improved Standards of Conduct.

Finally, to address concerns about bill deferral by committee chairs — the process that allows a single chair to unilaterally kill a bill — lawmakers could make it easier to pull bills to the floor for a full floor vote. Currently, two-thirds of a chamber must agree. Why not a simple majority? And why not let other members of a committee have more say in what bills get heard?

Lawmakers Need To Hear From You

The Commission on Improved Standards of Conduct’s next hybrid virtual session on transparency is set for July 27 at 2 p.m. Members of the public can testify on agenda items; all presentation materials will be available in advance; and the meeting will be recorded.

Watch for the meeting agenda here, and pay attention to what the commission recommends in its final report to the Legislature in December. (Fear not, Civil Beat will be watching closely.) And take a look at the commission’s interim report here.

There is also the Aug. 13 primary election, in which hundreds of candidates are running for state office. Civil Beat has asked candidates if they are open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature, and many of them have responded favorably.

You can read their answers here and decide who is most dedicated to greater sunshine, openness and transparency when the new set of legislators convene in 2023.


Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: The Public Should Demand A Desalination Plant For Oahu


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About the Authors

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Keona Blanks

Keona Blanks is an editorial page intern for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at kblanks@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

I think one of the biggest areas that could use reform is the power of committee chairs. Bills rarely get voted down by committees. So chairs essentially have control over what gets heard (and passed) and what dies. They have no limits on the length of their chairship, so one person can essentially dominate a subject matter for years or decades. The only real check on their power is the influence of budget chairs and leadership, and that's not always the best influence.

GroundUp · 3 weeks ago

The two most important things for any elected politician: transparency and accountability. Without those, the path to corruption is swift.

Scotty_Poppins · 3 weeks ago

Extending the legislative session gives them more time to make an even bigger mess.

palakakanaka · 4 weeks ago

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