Some big changes could be on the way for Hawaii lawmakers and lobbyists.

A commission to improve government standards wants the Legislature to post records of legislative allowances online, require lawmakers to disclose any business relationship with lobbyists and other organizations trying to influence government and make it harder for legislators to vote on bills when they may pose a conflict of interest.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct advanced those and several proposals aimed at lobbyists on Wednesday. Those bills would mandate annual ethics training for lobbyists, require them to disclose a list of bill numbers they are trying to influence and prohibit them from giving gifts to legislators and government employees.

But the question remains how far lawmakers will be willing to go in imposing more rules on themselves. Legislators will take up the proposals beginning in January along with others that the commission has already forwarded, which focused on election and campaign spending laws.

Lawmakers gather for the House floor session at the Capitol.
The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct is proposing new rules for state lawmakers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

House Speaker Scott Saiki formed the standards commission earlier this year after two former lawmakers were charged with taking bribes in order to influence legislation. Former Sen. J. Kalani English is serving a three year prison term in Oregon for his role in the bribery scheme.

Former Rep. Ty Cullen was supposed to be sentenced in October, but that hearing was rescheduled for Jan. 19, the day after the Legislature is set to convene its 2023 session. It’s not yet clear how many years Cullen could spend in prison.

Those lawmakers’ actions spurred a movement to increase transparency in government, and in particular, the Legislature.

“The system the Legislature operates on now is shockingly inefficient and ineffective in serving the needs of the people,” former state senator and Hilo businessman Russell Ruderman said during the commission meeting.

He called for greater attention to be paid to lawmakers’ outside business interests. Some work for law firms that represent clients lobbying state and county governments. Others work for consultants who may get some government work or for businesses that could stand to gain from legislative actions.

The commission sought to address that issue with a proposed bill that would require lawmakers to make additional public disclosures on annual financial reports that would reveal any business or financial interest with companies lobbying the Legislature.

“This is bold,” state Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris said. “This would have pretty wide-ranging applications.”

Harris said it could require many disclosures for legislators employed by law firms. He acknowledged during the meeting that the proposal could be politically challenging to advance and could bring legal challenges.

The commission also wants more transparency from lobbyists and the companies they represent. Currently, periodic reports from those organizations only require disclosure of how much a company is spending on lobbying and on which broad topics.

A new proposal by the commission would require lobbyists to include in their forms information on bills they plan to lobby for as well as a list of bills they helped to draft. Nikos Leverenz, one of the commissioners, also suggested those new disclosures should include information regarding budget items an organization could be lobbying on.

He gave an example of his organization, the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, testifying against budget provisions for a new jail in Halawa.

The commissioners decided to take a few more weeks to hash out details on proposals for more funds to county ethics commissions and another calling for a “citizen’s bill of rights,” which included provisions on access to legislative bill drafts, records and other proposals to make the committee decision-making process more transparent.

The commission will meet again in November to take up more proposals, including those from county prosecutors to beef up Hawaii’s criminal code. The commission’s work needs to be wrapped up in December to put proposals forward for the next legislative session.

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