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.

A veteran staffer turned lawmaker, this Kailua legislator points out how the Legislature could be more transparent in so many ways.

She has just begun her first term, but Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick of Kailua already has inside knowledge of Hawaii politics in general and the Legislature in particular from previous work as chief of staff for the House of Representatives and secretary of the Hawaii Democratic Party.

In the following conversation, which was edited for length and clarity, Hussey-Burdick talks about the many ways the Legislature could make itself more transparent and ethical. She says it’s about far more than just the big-ticket reform proposals that are garnering most of the attention.

You worked for years at the Capitol before getting elected to the Legislature. What needs to happen to make it easier for the public to track bills, get access to related documents and submit testimony?

There’s a lot of really awesome resources that are available to the people who work in the building. And really, it’s not like private information. They’re just compiling the public information in a way that makes it a lot easier to use, but those tools are not currently made available to the public.

One of the easiest examples are C sheets (comparison sheets) that highlight the differences between the latest House and Senate versions of a bill. Without those, you basically have to go through the documents line by line, pull them up two at a time, to see where the differences are.

What we actually do is one of our legislative staff creates a document that summarizes all the differences and then publishes that information only to the conference committee members. So it really should just be, I mean, it’s public information. I don’t understand why it’s not posted on a legislative website.

And there’s a lot of other examples of that, like, the public has access to bill-tracking software that isn’t quite as good as the bill-tracking software that the workers have access to. Just simple things. We already have them and could just make them public.

You mentioned in last year’s candidate Q&A that written testimony should be released to the public – or at least to the committee members —  as soon as it is submitted. You noted that sometimes committee chairs don’t release it to committee members until just before a hearing.

Right now there isn’t currently any law or rule ensuring that the public even has a right to testify on bills. And you’ll see that sometimes where the first committee accepts testimony, and then the second committee says they’re going to do decision-making only, and they accept written testimony but they don’t accept oral testimony.

So one of the bills, it’s actually probably my favorite bill from the reform commission (the House Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct) is HB 725, which is the Citizens Bill of Rights. It codifies that you have a right to testify orally. It codifies that you have a right to review testimony within 24 hours after it’s been submitted. And you have a right to hear a reason when a bill dies, and that your representative should be treated equally and fairly and be included regardless of their party or faction.

And it would create an Office of the Public Advocate where the public can file complaints if they believe these rights have been infringed.

Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick is in her first term as a legislator, but she knows her way around the Capitol, where she previously worked as chief of staff for the House of Representatives. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

How often have you seen a committee not take any testimony? When the status of the bill at that point is to be decision-making only?

That happens very frequently in the (Senate) Ways and Means Committee and the (House) Finance Committee, because they’re back-end committees and it’s already been heard in the subject-matter committee. A lot of times your bill will be referred to the Ways and Means or Finance committee and it doesn’t even have anything to do with finance. So they typically just give it a decision-making hearing to get it through.

But that’s one of the things the Citizens Bill of Rights addresses, you could have a reasonable right to expect that if your bill doesn’t have anything to do with finance, it should not be referred to a finance committee.

Because so many times the Finance Committee or the Ways and Means Committee has said, “Oh, I’m sorry, we just don’t have time to get to your bill this year. We have too many bills in our committee.” And it’s like, well, that was by design because you gave it a referral when it didn’t need one.

It essentially gives it an additional hurdle that it has to pass and it gives the money committee chairs a lot of power.

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What would you say are the most likely and, conversely, least likely of the reform proposals to make it out of the Legislature this year?

Most likely is probably the (public) campaign spending and fundraising reforms and maybe like the ethics reforms, like requiring lobbyists to go through additional ethics training. I think that typically the things that are requiring someone else to do something might have a better chance at passing than the ones requiring the Legislature to do something.

I think least likely is requiring the Legislature to be subject to the Sunshine Law. There’s just so many ways we would have to change.

How different would it be at the Legislature if the Sunshine Law applied?

Everything would have to change. I think most legislators, since they don’t have experience operating under the Sunshine Law, we don’t really realize how much our daily operations would be in violation.

We normally only give 48 hours’ notice for hearings. We would probably have to significantly expand the session or switch to a year-round schedule like the counties do, to have to comply with a six-day notice requirement.

A lot of pushback around this is because, you know, we have to fly people over from neighbor islands, and I can understand how they wouldn’t want to do that every day of every year, but we could definitely meet for like a week every month.

Or if we just switched to remote participation, I think that would really do a lot to push us into the 21st century and increase accessibility.

I want to mention other practices that are not only standard, but actually expected, like discussing how we’re planning to vote behind the scenes. A lot of times, when they recess for decision-making in a hearing, the committee will kind of hui and say, like, “OK, who’s going to vote no on what?”

And it’s pretty standard to withhold the testimony from committee members until 15 minutes before the hearing starts. Fifteen minutes to an hour is like the standard. So even the members of the committee don’t get to see the testimony until right before the hearing.

Why is that? It’s just weird.

Yeah, it is weird. And I suggest you ask the committee chairs why they do that. I literally cannot think of any reason why you would do that, except to prevent your own committee members from making a well-informed, well-thought-out decision.

I think that typically the things that are requiring someone else to do something might have a better chance at passing than the ones requiring the Legislature to do something.

Oh, and one thing that would change dramatically (under the Sunshine Law) is having co-sponsors on a bill because you can’t talk to your committee members about, like, who’s going to support what. That’s why on county councils you see people introduce a bill either by themselves or they might have one co-sponsor because you can only talk to one person – that’s the maximum under the Sunshine Law.

And there’s having have a full draft of a bill ready before voting on it. With the Sunshine Law, the rule is that the members of the committee have to have it at the same time as the public.

And so you can’t vote on it until you’ve seen it. A lot of times in the Legislature, when they pass a bill out of committee, the committee chair says I recommend these amendments, and lists them out verbally. But that (amended) bill has not been drafted yet. They’re voting on a bill that doesn’t exist yet.

There are bills in the Senate and House to increase public funding of campaigns. How do you feel about them?

SB 1543, yes (introduced by Sen. Karl Rhoads). That’s the one that Rep. (Della Au) Belatti introduced in the House (HB 967) and I signed enthusiastically.

Right now the biggest problem with our partial public funding program is that it’s on a reimbursement basis. So it really only helps the people who can afford to loan their campaign thousands of dollars for startup, and then they have to wait several weeks, maybe even a couple of months, before being reimbursed for that.

The system proposed in this bill would provide the funding right away, early money, and that would enable so many more people to access this critical program.

I also like that it doesn’t allow any other money to be raised or spent, so you get the amount specified for that particular race and that’s it. No more, no less.

Hawaii is the only Western state without some form of statewide citizens initiative process. In your candidate Q&A last year, you said you really had gone back and forth on the issue before deciding it has more potential for good than evil. Why do you think that?

Mostly because of the lack of transparency in the Legislature. We need some kind of other option.

I know that there are risks that big corporations could take over and in California it takes, like, two hours to fill out your ballot because of all the initiative questions.

But I think that without that we’re stuck with this clearly broken legislative system that is not working for so many people. I just think that we need some kind of safety net to ensure that all their voices are heard.

Read this next:

If You Care About Ethics Reform, You Better Speak Up

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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)

To be concise - A bill must pass through both House & Senate before going to the Governor's desk. Well, this means shrewd lobbyists recognize that they need only bribe one Committee Chair where a Bill is to be considered, in order to kill it. As the old saying goes, 'Follow the money'! Anyone who thinks a solid majority of Legislators respect and protect the 'Public Good' is in for a rude education. Money talks! Common sense and consumer protection are extraneous thoughts down there. With patience you can explore the website for Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission, and I also recommend 'Followthemoney.org' (which is a national database).

Dale.Head · 1 year ago

You would think that those who introduce Bills would want them to be heard, but if the same person who introduced the Bill is the decider of its fate, then we all need to question the obvious when the Bill is improperly referred to Committee. HB1501, a Bill for all condominium owners throughout Hawaii, and which will establish an Ombudsman’s Office for Condominiums to provide better protections for all owners and Associations, was improperly referred to the Housing (HSG) Committee vs. the Consumer Protection & Commerce (CPC) Committee and is now in jeopardy of not moving forward to a hearing in the 2023 Legislative Session. I ask House Speaker Scott Saiki (who introduced HB1501) and Representative Troy Hashimoto (Housing Committee Chair), to please refer/redirect the Bill to the correct committee, remove the (HSG) referral, and help to ensure that this Bill has a chance to be heard. I also ask the same for HB178, a more comprehensive Ombudsman Bill for Condominiums, which also includes HOAs, and HB176. These Bills: 1) impact approximately 30% of the population of Hawaii, 2) do not require any State funding, and 3) already have both local and national media attention.

Greg · 1 year ago

I'm with her in many ways, but I don't think C sheets is that big a deal. Its only for conference. Spot on about the announcement of amendments and members voting on a bill that doesn’t exist yet!!

BEN · 1 year ago

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