How Hawaii Could Be A Model Of Civic Legislative Virtue - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jim Shon

Jim Shon is a former state legislator.

We are all feeling chicken-skin pride in our Little League champs, especially how they won. They showed respect. Sportsmanship. Grace. Character. Virtue. Aloha.

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Perhaps the rest of us can learn and be inspired.

Looking at the culture of how we govern, let’s set aside laws and policy decisions. Let’s assume that every elected official wants to improve Hawaii. It’s not enough to win. It’s how we behave along the way. Are we role models?

Over the years, so many have privately spoken of this slippery slope away from democratic civic virtue — not talking about corruption and not talking about money.

Twenty-five years ago, the culture at the Capitol had a stronger sense of respect and aloha. Today’s well-intentioned legislators are often unaware of previous behavioral and procedural guardrails that made life among members, and between the Legislature and the public, more — well, virtuous and wholesome.

Empty gallery with the last day of the House floor Session.
There is much the Hawaii Legislature can do to restore civic virtue. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In our August primary, 60% of our voters were either not engaged, interested, inspired, motivated, entertained or optimistic enough to send in those ballots.

Here is how to emulate our Little League champs. It’s a Bill of Rights for all our citizens.

No. 1 — All members of the public have the right to expect that their elected representative or senator will be treated with fairness, equity, dignity, respect, and inclusion, regardless of seniority, faction or party. Anything less would be an affront to all the voters who voted in their district.

No. 2 — All members of the public have the right to be treated with fairness, equity, dignity, respect and honesty during public hearings, regardless of their lack of power, status, wealth or other excuses for unequal treatment. This includes lack of fear that expression of an unappreciated view will result in petty retribution by an elected official, such as cutting a specific employee from the budget.

This has become almost routine as individual employee ID numbers were deleted in the budget worksheets. One must ask if it is appropriate for the legislature to attempt to decide who should be employed, rather than the overall budgets of an agency. This practice is tolerated, yet it has the odor of mean spirited bullying.

No. 3 — All members of the public have the right to provide oral testimony at any public hearing, regardless of the preference of committee chairs who might prefer for folks to “stand on their written testimony.”

No. 4 — All members of the public have the right to see all submitted testimony no later than 24 hours after it is submitted. If you can’t see what others are saying, how can you respond?

No. 5 — All members of the public have the right to expect all committee members to see and review all bills, amendments, and committee reports before formally voting on a measure in committee. Is voting in committee without the text, really a valid vote?

No. 6 — All members of the public have the right to expect that the original content of a bill not be suddenly and substantially changed without adequate public hearings on the new content. This goes beyond gut and replace. Many significant and legitimate amendments are often needed. They all deserve public input.

In our state Senate, if a previous committee had a hearing on a bill, the next major committee, usually Senate Ways and Means, does not have a public hearing. A public hearing is not my computer sending a document to the WAM computer. A hearing means any citizen can come to the table, look our legislators in the eye, and speak truth to power.

No. 7 — All members of the public have the right to expect that legislators have the honesty and openness to take a public committee or floor vote on a bill, rather than “killing” a bill with multiple referrals. This recently happened with end of life issues.

No. 8 — All members of the public have the right to expect that subject matter committees, such as health, education, transportation, etc., will pass out bills without deliberate defects, and appropriation bills with the full recommended amount. These committees, their leaders and members, are disrespected. Today, they are forced to pass on crippled bills that puts power in the hands of the money committees.

No. 9 — All members of the public have the right to expect that non-fiscal bills will not be referred to committees on the House Finance Committee or Ways and Means, and that no bill should die in a conference committee by a conference chair not attending.  Without really noticing it, the concentration of power away from regular committees to WAM and FIN is not a democratic trend.

No. 10 — All members of the public have the right to expect that all official executive communications, such as budgetary information, shall be posted on a website in a timely manner.

Read The Bills!

It is true that the pandemic challenged all procedures. Yet the pre-digital legislative world had some admirable features.

As chair of the House Committee on Health, I recall that it was no big deal to create a list of bills we intended to hear, and allow members to make their case if their pet bill was not on the list.

If we had a hearing and proposed amending the bill, no formal vote was taken immediately. A final proposed draft of the bill, along with the committee report, was circulated.

The culture at the Capitol used to have a stronger sense of respect and aloha.

As chair, I had the authority to draft both. The committee report had space for each member’s signature. A single official copy was circulated, and each member could read both. They had time to check with their advisors or peers before signing off.

They could sign off free and clear with a “yes” vote, or with reservations — also a “yes” vote — an IDNC (“I do not concur”) or a “no” vote.

This would be officially printed for all to see, and there would be no doubt how all voted. No members rushing into the room to vote on a bill they haven’t read.

If the bill had an appropriation, we put in our considered recommended amount. The date was not changed to make the bill defective. The process respected all who were on the committee and more importantly, all who testified.

So, let’s take the lessons from our Little League role models. We can do better. We can be a better model of civic legislative virtue.

Read this next:

John Pritchett: Winners And Losers

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About the Author

Jim Shon

Jim Shon is a former state legislator.

Latest Comments (0)

This is a down right crying shame. The plain fact that the writer of this article felt it needed to be written (it did btw) shows the low quality and mean spiritedness of both the governed and those doing the governing. Although I don't know what will, I don't believe that this can be fixed by "aloha spirit".

BumbleBall · 1 year ago

Yes and... we have the Aloha Spirit Law§ 5-7.5 "Aloha Spirit" in the Hawaii Revised Statutes, which defines how citizens and government officials can take the aloha spirit into consideration. An interesting perspective in that it promotes an attribute and not a statute that negates or penalizes a behavior or action.

nalo_dude · 1 year ago

Thank you, this Bill of Rights for citizens is a wonderful idea. I can't help but wonder if we had a two party political system in Hawaii, there would inevitably be some battling that would occur across the aisle that would result in a demand for accountability and transparency that would benefit the public. This is essential for any healthy democracy. Unfortunately, it seems to me that our citizens prefer one party rule and all its' unintended consequences.

elrod · 1 year ago

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