Chad Blair: There’s Value In Legislative Task Forces And Studies - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

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.

Even though the Hawaii Legislature formally meets for just a few months of the year, its work continues during the interim. It includes multiple requests to government agencies and officials, some of them binding, some just suggestions.

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The requests from the 2022 session were posted online this summer, and it’s a snapshot of the work of legislators that may not garner headlines and yet is often consequential. The enactment of important laws often follows.

But it also illustrates that what comes out of a legislative session can appear to outsiders as bureaucratic and Byzantine and avoiding responsibility. Let me explain.

During this past session, Rep. Nicole Lowen from the Big Island pushed a bill to increase the percentage requirement of Kona coffee blends from 10% to 51%.

As Lowen wrote in a Community Voice on House Bill 1517, “The deception is the point: to use the name Kona or Kau or Hawaii on coffee that is 90% not that, and then to sell it for more by exploiting the good reputation of real Hawaii coffee to increase the amount of money that blenders can make on imported coffee beans by passing them off as a boutique local product.”

By end of session, however, HB 1517 was watered down to call for the state Department of Agriculture to study the issue and report back to the Legislature in January 2024.

Soil Coffee Big Island Hawaii Grown Kona
The battle over how best to label products containing Kona coffee continues, with the Hawaii Legislature ordering a study of the issues. Ku'u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

I’m not going to talk about why Lowen’s bill was altered. (You can read that story here.) But it captures something that happens a lot at the Leg in lieu of passing actual legislation: Call for a study! Or a report!

No surprise, then, that the words “study” and “report” crop up hundreds of times in the 133-page chronicle of requests this year. You will also find plenty of mentions of the words “task force” and “working group,” as in this example: “Establishes the blockchain and cryptocurrency task force to be placed within the department of commerce and consumer affairs for administrative purposes.”

That particular piece of legislation, Senate Bill 2695, stipulates 14 points regarding the composition of said task force and nine points on what it must do before it sends its work to the Legislature 15 months from now.

I can understand lawmakers wanting fresh intel on crypto, which has been all the rage in financial markets. But the debate over Kona coffee labeling has been around for decades. Do we really need another study or a task force?

It depends, say government leaders.

‘Vital Role’

“Task forces can play a vital role in preparing for the next session,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki. “In most cases the Legislature creates a task force because the policy issue is really complicated and there are varying opinions on what should be done. And we just run out of time during regular session to resolve it.”

Saiki acknowledges that task forces and working groups — essentially, interchangeable terms, just like “studies” and “reports” — can be perceived as evidence of the Legislature’s inability to resolve problems. In fact, he argues, they can actually “open up the process” to allow members of the public to be involved, and not just members of the Legislature.

Saiki pointed to the example of the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, something that came out of a working group in 2021 during the interim and became enabling legislation this year. On Monday, Gov. David Ige appointed several people, including prominent Native Hawaiian activists, to the authority. The nominations await Senate confirmation.

Another example cited in the new Legislative Reference Bureau report is House Resolution 9, approved in February in response to the high-profile bribery cases involving two former lawmakers. The Commission to Review Ethics Code, Lobbyist laws and Campaign Spending laws has already met several times and discussed many ideas on how to improve ethics at the Leg, and a final set of recommendations is expected in December.

Opening Day of the 2022 Legislature with plastic dividers during a surge in Covid-19 cases statewide. January 19, 2022.
The Legislature meets formally from January to May each year, but its work extends through the interim — in part through the work of task forces and request for reports. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Whether meaningful ethics reform or smoother operations on the mauna ever develop remains to be seen, of course. But good laws and policies often begin with careful research and brainstorming by experts.

Karl Rhoads, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reminded me of the slew of proposed criminal justice reforms that originated in 2017.

“Look at cash bail reform,” said Rhoads. “That bill came out the Criminal Pretrial Task Force recommendations. That was a very influential proposal.”

Sometimes good ideas take time, and Rhoads said he and his colleagues could not reach agreement on a cash bail measure in 2019. But House Bill 1567 passed in 2022.

The bill, however, encountered strong opposition from powerful voices in the law enforcement community, and Ige ended up vetoing it in July. That does not mean it was a waste of time, although it may be some time before the concept is introduced again.

“But a task force can be very useful,” said Rhoads. “It can be when you get a lot of people who know a lot about a particular topic in the same room where they can hash things out.”

Mixed Outcomes

One thing the LRB is not responsible for is keeping track of what happens to all those studies, reports, requests, working groups and task forces, although they are posted online. Saiki and Rhoads say that follow-up is the responsibility of the introducers of the proposals themselves.

Still, follow through can result in mixed outcomes.

The LRB’s 2019 report, for example, cites a legislative requirement that the state auditor conduct a performance audit of the Agribusiness Development Corporation. The highly critical audit that followed, however, ultimately led to some House lawmakers taking far more issue with State Auditor Les Kondo himself than the beleaguered ADC.

Another task that came from 2019 required the Department of Agriculture and the Office of the Governor to “develop a strategic plan” to double local food production and increase food exports by 2030.

Ige, who promised to double food production by 2020 — that is, two years ago — told Civil Beat in an interview last month that, while he believes there is anecdotal evidence that production has grown, it has also been difficult to measure that growth.

The Legislature’s work continues. Among the many requests detailed in the LRB’s most recent report are these seemingly worthwhile endeavors:

  • House Bill 1539, which requires a judicial security task force to examine methods for securing online personal information of federal and state judges and appropriate judiciary personnel.
  • House Bill 1741, which requires the Department of Human Services to continue to lead a working group to address visitation and support needs of children and families of incarcerated people at Waiawa Correctional Facility on Oahu.
  • House Bill 1800, which requires the director of health to submit a report to the Legislature by December 2023 measuring greenhouse gas emissions in Hawaii, including from airplanes.

Internet security, criminal justice reform and climate change mitigation will forever be with us, no? Perhaps a study and a task force can help after all.


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About the Author

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.


Latest Comments (0)

If all the studies and task force reports of the past 10 years were put together, I think they would fill multiple book shelves! I wonder how many of them were even read by any legislator. It would be an interesting study to look at all the recommendations made in those reports and see how many of them were acted on in any way. It's fine to point to one recommendation from several years ago as evidence of the usefulness of studies and task forces. But what a waste of effort. From my perspective, when the legislature (or their leaders) don't want to do something, they order a study, which they hope will lead people to forget about the issue. For example, the current Ethics Review Commission was asked to make, and did make, interim recommendations before the end of this year's legislative session. I think the only one the legislature took up was banning fund raisers during the legislative session. But the banned them not just for themselves, but for any elected official or candidate for office. That was a self-serving way to make it hard for anyone to challenge them, and a failure to recognize the uniqueness of their role in making laws and the ethical issues involved.

JusticePlease · 1 week ago

Granted, task forces can be beneficial, if handled timely; but they can also be stall tactics. For instance, the establishment of a Commission to Review Ethics Code, Lobbyist laws and Campaign Spending (though beneficial) falls short in scope, IMO, and allows enough time for the re-election of the very players who could have implemented immediate laws in response to such egregious acts (e.g. immediate, complete and automatic loss of pension & benefits for those pleading or found guilty of felonies while serving in a government role, regardless of when). These corrupt individuals should endure the fullest extent of punishment by law - not be able to plea bargain, not have reduced sentences or charges. Period. They've violated the stewardship inherent in their public role. Their situations need to be addressed as the egregious violations they are.With the Commission limited in scope, and nothing in the works to address the gaps, nothing will change or improve in regard to aspects outside of their charged scope. Ethics classes are, for all practical purposes, a non-response.We need some leaders who will step up to address such gaps, NOW. The public deserves no less.

KeepingItReal · 1 week ago

Tasks forces can serve a function only when you keep the lobbyist and special interests away. Members should have the skill set to deal with the issue or come up to speed on the issue. Our legislative bodies have an administrative support group to assist them.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 week ago

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