More Transparency In The Hawaii Legislature? It Won't Be Easy - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.


Is this the year the Hawaii Legislature gets serious about transparency and accountability? After all, a state commission just proposed dozens of reforms and the House speaker promised they’d get serious consideration.

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Or, is this one more year when reforms are ignored? The Senate just released its 2023 priorities and the proposals were mentioned … not at all.

Unfortunately the latter seems more likely, based on what candidates running for office told voters during the 2022 political season.

That is, if they bothered to say anything at all. Of the 76 people elected to the Legislature last year, 35 ignored repeated requests to respond to Civil Beat’s candidate questionnaire. That included 28 incumbents.

Imagine that: Politicians turning down a high-profile opportunity to explain their positions in their own words, without buying airtime or knocking on doors.

Maybe they were put off by questions about why the Legislature continues to exclude itself from the Sunshine Law that requires other governmental bodies such as county councils to conduct the people’s business in public.

Forty-one winning legislative candidates did respond in the Q&As, but just 13 said the Sunshine Law should apply to state lawmakers. Two were flat-out opposed, while the remaining 26 were undecided or gave no response.

Many legislators really like to wheel and deal behind closed doors.

Clarification: An earlier version of this commentary misrepresented Rhoads’ response in the Q&A.

Sen. Karl Rhoads just announced he would introduce a bill to increase public financing of campaigns to reduce the influence of special-interest groups. He noted in his Q&A that although the public records law applies to the Legislature the Sunshine Law does not.

“I am open to changing that. My guess is that it would not change legislative results, but decisions would take longer,” he said, adding, “being able to meet in private makes it easier to work out compromises quickly.”

Rhoads, by the way, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that could be hearing many of the reform proposals.

  • A Special Commentary Project

The special Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, empaneled by House Speaker Scott Saiki, noted that some aspects of the open meetings law, such as providing six days’ advance public notice, might not work well in a regular legislative session of just 60 days. But it urged legislators to adopt “as much of the sentiment contained in the Sunshine Law as is possible.”

In their Q&As, some candidates were ready to do just that, including newly elected Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick, who said, “It isn’t right that the Legislature created a Sunshine Law for the purpose of public participation and transparency, but then exempted itself from it.”

Sounds obvious, right? Not in Hawaii.

View of wispy clouds thru the top roof of the Capitol.
Blue sky may appear through the roof of the Hawaii Capitol, but some discussions still occur in the dark. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Nothing More To See Here

Another traditional legislative dysfunction is the dictatorial power of committee chairs, which includes the ability to single-handedly kill bills with no explanation whatsoever.

The standards commission proposed that chairs at least be required to publicly explain themselves when they scuttle legislation, but some lawmakers would go further.

“All meetings and discussions that negotiate the fate of a bill should be public, inclusive of an opportunity for participation, and all deferrals should require a committee vote so that the public can be made aware of the individual stances of their elected representatives,” said newly elected Rep. Mahina Poepoe.

Sen. Stanley Chang suggested term limits for committee chairs and other legislative leaders, while newly elected Sen. Angus McKelvey called for “additional disclosure reporting requirements for chairs and leadership positions to increase accountability.”

House members gather at the beginning of the first public in person floor session.
Some legislators see recent scandals as isolated incidents rather than evidence of systemic rot. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Pretty much all the respondents took pains to decry the bribery convictions of former Sen. J. Kalani English and Rep. Ty Cullen. And many expressed their openness to the standards commission’s call for greater disclosure regarding legislator-lobbyist relationships and which proposed legislation is supported or opposed by lobbyists.

But some claimed the bribery cases were anomalies and not indicative of systemic problems inside the Capitol.

“The recent corruption scandals were not due to the Sunshine Law or fundraisers,” Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said in her Q&A. “If any person, elected official or not, chooses to violate the law, he or she will find a way no matter what the laws may hold.”

“The Legislature has many measures in place to ensure transparency and accessibility,” said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

In other words, relax folks, everything is hunky-dory now that the bad apples have fallen from the legislative tree. Nothing more to see here.

Not every legislator wore blinders.

“The emergence of recent corruption scandals was shocking but not surprising,” said Rep. Amy Perruso. “There is a strong culture of pay-to-play at the Legislature, enabled in large part by the ways in which most candidates fund their elections.”

Still, it’s hard to escape the notion that most state lawmakers are pretty comfortable with the assertion of Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, a former longtime chair of the House Finance Committee, who said, “The Legislature is a body that is better judged by the outcome than the deliberations that go into the final bill.”

Hmm. Do the ends justify the means?

The Legislature passed landmark legislation last year to raise the minimum wage and provide more affordable housing, especially for Native Hawaiians, so you could argue that it was a success even if the measures emerged from the darkness of closed-door negotiations.

But you could also argue that both those breakthroughs might have occurred years earlier in a more open, responsive Legislature.

Rays Of Hope?

Even though the forecast gleaned from last year’s candidate Q&As is for continued cloudy skies over the Capitol, there is a chance of some sunshine.

For one thing — 31 things, actually — there are the proposals of the standards commission.

“Their recommendations will be introduced in the 2023 legislative session and the public will have an opportunity to comment on them,” Saiki said when the panel released its final report.

And there’s this shining example of what Hawaii’s political leaders can accomplish when properly motivated.

For years people complained about the burden placed on residents and public officials of neighbor islands who wanted to have a say in what goes on at the Legislature. But state leaders just couldn’t manage to arrange for most public meetings to be streamed, let alone for people to testify remotely instead of flying to Oahu.

Then came the pandemic, requiring that almost all of the public’s business be conducted remotely. Somehow, leaders found a way to make it happen — and quickly.

Practically every candidate who responded to the Q&As praised the newfound ability to let people testify remotely for legislative and county council meetings, and called for those practices to be made permanent.

Maybe the biggest challenge moving ahead is figuring out how to inspire that same problem-solving urgency without a global health crisis.


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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Should we really expect anything different from our ingrained, tired, old legislators? We keep asking, we keep hearing, but reality is we get the same flavor every year. We know it's a one party system, we know who the speakers are and that the unions control both the senate, house and Washington place, so what can we really expect to change? Maybe that the city property tax valuations are now tied to union labor increases. Who do you think really runs this place?

wailani1961 · 3 weeks ago

Dear Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke--the reason for the public concern about transparency IS concern over outcomes from the legislature than generally seem to prioritize the interests of a small group of wealthy people or businesses, rather than the general public. Of course, just before an election in which everyone had to run, major bills were passed to benefit a broader constituency, but that is far from the norm.

JusticePlease · 3 weeks ago

The process is designed to limit public scrutiny, especially the changes to bills that magically appear at the last minute.

Fred_Garvin · 3 weeks ago

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