A measure that would impose a 16-year term limit on service for state legislators narrowly cleared the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct Wednesday even as members who wrote the proposal raised concerns over possible negative impacts on policymaking in Hawaii.

The proposed bill won approval on a 4-to-3 vote of the commission members. Nikos Leverenz, Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris and Janet Mason voted “no.” Retired Judge Dan Foley, the commission chairman, former lawmaker Barbara Marumoto and Honolulu Deputy Prosecutor Flo Nakakuni voted “yes.”

Campaign Spending Commission Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao broke a tie and voted yes, saying she did so “only because I think we owe it to the public to move it forward and hear what people have to say about this. If it dies, it dies.”

The measure still needs to clear the Legislature next year and to be approved by a majority of voters the year after that.

House adjourns the special session at the legislature.
A legislative commission voted 4-3 to advance a bill that would set term limits for state lawmakers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Under the proposed measure, state legislators could not serve for more than 16 years in their lifetime in either the House or the Senate. That’s up from eight years total originally proposed in bill drafts earlier this week.

Four years ago, a Civil Beat poll found that 70% of respondents favored term limits for lawmakers. Term limits have also been proposed by multiple candidates for governor and others running for elected office. However, there’s little evidence that term limits prevent political corruption, members of the commission said.

“There’s no correlation between length of term and public corruption,” Marumoto, a former Republican lawmaker, said. “Most of the people I served with are upstanding.”

The commission was formed in February after two former lawmakers were charged with taking bribes to influence wastewater legislation. Mason said she reviewed academic research in the area of political science and did not find anything to suggest that term limits could prevent the kind of corruption the commission was formed to fight against.

Mason also studied the shifting seats in the Legislature. Between 2012 and 2017, 36% of Senate seats and 47% of House seats changed hands. And between 2012 and 2022, 56% of Senate seats and 65% of House seats had different lawmakers seated in them, according to Mason’s study.

Nationwide, Mason said 15 states have term limits, while another six implemented the idea but abandoned it sometime later.

Harris worried that the term limits proposal could end up drawing attention away from other topics the commission is taking up on ethics, election and campaign finance reform.

Shorter term limits could mean lawmakers begin looking for their next job while still in office, or further solidify the revolving door in politics where lawmakers turn to lobbying shortly after holding office.

Others raised concerns that new lawmakers may be more prone to undue influence by lobbyists and legislative or government staff who have been in their positions for years and would have the institutional knowledge the lawmaker lacks.

“And there’s less accountability for those guys,” Nakakuni said. “You don’t know who they are, what they are.”

Bills proposing term limits have not been granted committee hearings in recent years. Even if the Legislature approves the commissions proposal next year, voters would not be able to weigh in until the 2024 general election. Even then, the 16-year limit would not start until 2026.

The commission also recommended a bill requiring certain legislative groups to follow the states open meetings laws. Members promised to make recommendations on internal rules for the House and Senate that would more closely align with those laws later this month.

More Work To Be Done

In the State Capitol, deferring a measure is usually codeword for killing it.

But in the standards commission’s case, deferring proposals means the commission will take up the bills again sometime in early November.

That’s the case with bills dealing with public records and meeting recordings that were similar to bills that passed the 2021 Legislature but were vetoed by Gov. David Ige earlier this year. The commission put those off to address some concerns previously raised by state agencies.

The commission also put off a vote on a bill that would require the state Office of Elections to produce a voters guide. Mason still needed to reach out to the office for its input.

The commission plans to meet at least twice more this month and several times in November to take up proposals on ethics laws, campaign finance and Hawaii’s criminal code.

A final report with all of the commission’s recommendations is due in December.

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