Require Hawaii Lawmakers To Discuss Bills In Public - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

John Kawamoto

John Kawamoto is a former legislative analyst and an advocate for good government.


Editor’s note: We welcome citizen commentary on ideas that would promote more transparency and accountability at all levels of government. If  you have something you think needs more discussion or you just want to make your views known, we’d love to publish it as part of our “Let The Sunshine In” project. Policymakers need to hear from voters or nothing will change. Please send to sunshine@civilbeat.org.

Our democratic form of government, which Abraham Lincoln characterized as “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” requires transparency to assure us that government is indeed working in our common interests.

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We, the people, should know how government operates. Also, since we live under the laws passed by government, we should also know the reasons that those laws are passed.

The Hawaii State Legislature is responsible for passing laws. Legislators discuss the pros and cons of bills before they become law, and these discussions should be held in public.

Yet these discussions can be held in private, and they often are. That is a concern because private discussions of public interests by decision makers may lead to abuse.

In recent years, there have been an excessive number of cases of criminal conduct among state and county officials.

For example, last year a former state senator and a sitting state representative admitted taking bribes. The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct was subsequently created by House lawmakers to restore trust in government.

The commission issued a report, which said that these cases “seemed to reveal deep-rooted systemic and institutional problems.” The commission also stated that “citizens have a right to know what is happening in its government and to be able to “see through” what is going on when government officials conduct business.”

 

The report contained a number of proposals, some of which affect the Legislature. The Legislature adopts public policy, determines how government agencies operate, and crafts the state’s $10 billion budget, so the potential for abuse is substantial.

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Most of the work of the Legislature is done in committee. Committees hold public hearings on bills, receive testimony from the public, amend bills, and decide whether or not to pass bills out of committee. Committees have the power to keep bills alive or kill bills.

House and Senate rules determine how committees operate. Both the House Rules and Senate Rules require committee meetings to be public meetings.

Since these are public meetings, one might think that discussions among committee members would be held in public, and that people attending the meeting would be able to hear what they say. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case.

The committee hearing process usually consists of testimony presented by the public on bills that are on the hearing agenda, which is followed by discussion of the bills by committee members. Then the committee chair makes recommendations on whether to pass each bill out of committee, and finally the members of the committee vote on these recommendations.

House Judiciary Committee hearing wide.
While legislative committees meet publicly, much of their work is done out of the public eye.

The discussion among committee members is not public because the common practice is for the committee chair to call a recess before the discussion. During the recess, committee members discuss the bills.

However, they don’t speak into their microphones, and they are so far from people attending the hearing that they cannot be heard by the public.

When their discussion is concluded, committee members use their microphones again, the committee chair calls the hearing back into session, makes a recommendation on each bill (presumably based on the private discussion), and the committee votes on each recommendation.

Technically, the discussion is not held during the hearing since it occurs during a recess, so the letter of the House Rules and Senate Rules is followed.

However, since the public can’t hear the discussion, they don’t know why bills are passed or not. A loophole in the House and Senate Rules is being used to undermine transparency. The standards commission did not propose to fix this loophole.

Sunshine Exemption

It should be noted that the Legislature can operate in this manner because it is the only state or county agency that is exempt from Hawaii’s Sunshine Law. Even the county councils, which are the legislative bodies of the counties, must comply with the Sunshine Law. When the Legislature passed the Sunshine Law in 1975, the Legislature exempted itself.

The Sunshine Law places strict limitations on discussions by three or more members of any state or county agency that is authorized to take official action. The county councils seem to be able to comply with the Sunshine Law without much difficulty, but the Legislature is exempt from it.

The loophole can be fixed. House and Senate rules may be amended to require Legislators to discuss bills in public. If the House and Senate decline to amend their rules to let more sunshine into the State Capitol, Hawaii Revised Statutes may be amended to do so.

A government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” requires sunshine and transparency. If the public demands it, the Legislature will certainly comply.


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About the Author

John Kawamoto

John Kawamoto is a former legislative analyst and an advocate for good government.


Latest Comments (0)

Who, in their right mind, can find any argument against this opinion piece? Anyone who does, probably has money to hide.

Scotty_Poppins · 2 weeks ago

the legislature is not another government agency, it is one of three separate branches of government, the executive, judiciary, and the legislature. The Judiciary is exempt from Sunshine. Committees and entities comprised of only Legislators are exempt from Sunshine. Committees, commissions, and working groups that have citizen members or executive branch members are subject to sunshine. For the State only the Governor, Lt Governor, and all Legislators are held accountable election every 2 or 4 years. Department directors and their bureaucratic staff cannot say the same. Other commenters have valid concerns on applying Sunshine to the 51 member House and the 25 member Senate. How does the citizen express their views to a legislator except by committee hearing? Since each house votes on the bill, are all legislators prohibited from discussing a bill except in committee public hearings or in session?Subjecting the legislature to Sunshine would be as misguided as subjecting the judiciary to Sunshine. Despite Mr Kawamoto's experience it seems that he has not thought this through.

Mayah · 2 weeks ago

Why don't we have a C-Span type of broadcast for these sessions? That would solve the transparency problem, IMO. Would it be logical to have Olelo get involved since they have already established themselves in the community? Thoughts?

alohalani · 2 weeks ago

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