Supporters believe the idea could increase transparency, but restrictions on employment have met with pushback.

When Sen. Stanley Chang was elected to the Senate in 2016 after serving for four years on the Honolulu City Council, he was surprised by the pace of the legislative session.

The council’s schedule of weekly committee hearings and twice-monthly council meetings throughout the year “permitted time for deliberation, consultation with stakeholders and accessibility for the public,” Chang said.

The Legislature?

“It’s just four months of chaos – it was very striking,” he added.

State senators are considering a bill that would have the Legislature meeting year-round instead of just four months per year. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Chang proposed an amendment to the Hawaii Constitution through Senate Bill 149 that would eliminate the current 60-day limit on legislative sessions and require lawmakers to meet at least once monthly instead.

Moving Through The Senate

Chang has introduced similar measures before that either never got hearings or died, but SB 149 is actually moving through the Senate this year. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed it on Feb. 2, adding provisions that would make the Legislature subject to the state open meetings law and ban outside employment by state lawmakers.

Lawmakers exempted themselves from the state’s Sunshine Law decades ago and have been able to hold outside employment even as they implemented restrictions on outside jobs for governors, lieutenant governors and mayors.

The ban on employment could help eliminate conflicts of interest, and additional time to consider bills could result in better laws. But the idea of meeting year-round with no allowance for outside employment has already been met with skepticism from current and former lawmakers.

“It flies in the face of the original proposition of the framers of our constitution who intended to see people from our communities become legislators,” state Ethics Commissioner Rey Graulty, a former state representative, said during a recent commission meeting.

There are also open questions of how much extending the session would cost taxpayers, whether lawmakers would need more full-time staff and how much lawmakers would be paid. Under SB 149, determining lawmakers’ salaries would still be left up to the state Salary Commission.

The change in the length of session would be dramatic. Hawaii’s Legislature has met annually for 60-days since the 1970s with fairly predictable breaks and deadlines for bills. The state constitution allows the Legislature to extend its session by 15 days, but that power is rarely invoked.

How It Works In Other States

Eleven states don’t have limits on the length of legislative sessions — Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Some Legislatures, like those in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, meet between January and November with regular breaks in between. Others have longer sessions every other year.

“It’s just four months of chaos.”

Sen. Stanley Chang

Although Chang modeled SB 149 off of the county councils, the Wisconsin Legislature might provide a glimpse into what Hawaii’s could look like if it meets year-round.

Wisconsin’s 2023 calendar carves out meeting periods in January, February, March and April before sending bills to the governor in May. There are two more meeting periods in May and June before more bills are sent to the governor in August. A final round of meetings for the year is held in September, October and November.

Currently, the Hawaii Legislature crams most of its work into four months. The Legislature convenes on the third Wednesday in January and goes until the first week of May. The deadline to introduce bills is usually one week after the session opens, which often means lawmakers end up “dumping the kitchen sink” when it comes to ideas for bills, Chang said.

It’s common to see more than 3,000 bills filed each year. Most will die because they fail to get committee hearings by certain deadlines throughout session. Such was the case Friday, when the total number of bills this year was cut to about 1,700.

Stanley Chang
Hawaii Sen. Stanley Chang says a year-round Legislature would help avoid the “four months of chaos” under the current system. (Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022)

Chang thinks that meeting monthly would eliminate the need for such tight deadlines. The only deadlines would be for the budget bills, which would need to be submitted to the governor sometime in April under SB 149.

Lawmakers also may introduce fewer bills each year since they could work them in year-round. Under SB 149, non-budget bills would have two years from their introduction date to become law. Legislators would have one month to consider any bills vetoed by the governor.

Open Questions Remain

The extended time to work on bills could give committee chairs more leeway to work on bills. If disagreements arise between two or more parties, the chair could have them work it out and come back the next month, Chang said.

That could have saved House Bill 716 this year — a proposal from the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct to create a statewide voter information guide. House Judiciary Chairman David Tarnas killed the measure because the state Attorney General’s Office and the Legislative Reference Bureau couldn’t agree on who should put the guide together. Tarnas asked the offices to create a working group and come back next year.

On the other hand, legislative chairs could still kill a bill by letting it sit for two years. But Chang expects that deciding to unilaterally kill a bill during a committee hearing would be unlikely because a lawmaker could just introduce the bill again the following month.

“The whole concept is that we are supposed to be citizen legislators, not professional legislators.”


Chang said he doesn’t know how much a year-round Legislature would cost taxpayers and the bill doesn’t include an allocation request. The National Conference of State Legislatures, a clearinghouse for data on legislative bodies in the U.S., doesn’t have data comparing full-time Legislatures either.

The costs of a legislative session vary widely between states, Natalie Wood, director of the NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening, said. For example, some legislatures, like New Mexico’s, add more staff in certain years to accommodate longer, busier sessions. The variation can make it difficult to keep track of costs across the country.

But full-time Legislatures that meet year-round, like those in New Jersey and New York, tend to pay their legislators more than those who serve only part time.

Wood said that meeting year-round could put Hawaii lawmakers in a better position to respond to evolving needs in the state.

“On the other hand, some might say a shorter time line might urge efficiency, to have deadlines and get legislators to get their work done in a speedy manner because they have pressing needs in the district or other jobs to get to,” Wood said, adding that lawmakers may also like the idea of being a “citizen Legislature.”

During a hearing on SB 149, Sen. Joy San Buenaventura said she would support the bill, but “with reservations” for that reason.

“The whole concept is that we are supposed to be citizen legislators, not professional legislators,” she said. “As such, I think we are going backwards.”

During a meeting of the state Ethics Commission, Graulty said that although many people consider Hawaii lawmakers to be part time, it feels like a full-time job.

But state Ethics Director Robert Harris said that restricting outside employment could help reduce the perceived conflicts of interest that can arise each session.

The commission, which typically weighs in on bills that could affect legislative ethics, voted to not take a stance on the bill. SB 149 has yet to get a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, a key hurdle if it’s to advance this year.

It's a long shot, but if SB 149 were to pass the Legislature this year it would go to voters during the 2024 General Election.

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