The Democratic Party Platform Calls For Serious Government Reform. So Why Are Democrats Reluctant To Do It? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

What does it mean to be a Democratic legislator in Hawaii? We are about to find out.

If any of the 68 Democrats in the Hawaii Legislature aren’t focused this session on efforts to improve government transparency and accountability, they simply aren’t paying attention to what’s going on.

They’d be ignoring the fact that after a series of recent government scandals, including the bribery convictions of two of their former colleagues, the speaker of the House convened a special commission that recommended legislators make dozens of changes to clean up their act.

And the fact that Hawaii’s newly elected Democratic governor announced he is inclined to sign reform bills — if only the Legislature will pass them.

And they’d be ceding the moral high ground to House Republicans, who united to announce their support for the recommendations.

Equally important, Democratic legislators who don’t push for reform this session would be thwarting their own party’s platform and resolutions adopted last year.

At that point they might justifiably be called Democrats in Name Only.

State party officials have long pondered an irony that springs from their success: Democrats so thoroughly dominate Hawaii politics that even politicians who don’t share the party’s progressive positions want to join the club. In fact, there has been a historic trend of local Republicans switching parties in order to stay relevant.

Newly elected Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick put it this way in her candidate Q&A last year: “This practice undermines our party values, and leaves the true Democrats wondering how to hold our legislators accountable when they act in direct opposition to our party platform.”

Those values are stated clearly and strenuously on the party’s website. The party’s platform, adopted last May at the state convention, says that “government officials should be held to the highest ethical standards” and calls for  “full transparency in all government functions.”

It goes on: “We support government reforms that limit the influence of money on the creation or execution of policy. We support campaign finance reform that limits the amount of money organizations, corporations or individuals can donate to political campaigns. We support full public-financing of elections.”

Hawaii State Democratic Convention Sherator Hotel. Chad possible hero.  28 may 2016
Delegates to last year’s Democratic state convention approved a platform and resolutions calling for reform in the Legislature. The 2016 state convention is shown here. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

Delegates to the Democratic state convention also adopted resolutions that in some cases go further than the Special Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct appointed by House Speaker Scott Saiki.

For instance, the Legislature currently exempts itself from the open meeting requirements of the Sunshine Law. While the Standards Commission urged lawmakers to adopt “as much of the sentiment contained in the Sunshine Law as is possible,” Democratic convention delegates called for the Legislature to “comply with all State Sunshine and Ethics laws.”

That would mean, among other things, not talking about the public’s business in private — something state legislators currently can do even though county council members cannot.

The same Democratic Party resolution targets the current power of committee chairs to single-handedly kill a bill without an explanation, calling for rule changes that would:

  • Grant any bill sponsored by a majority of the members in the originating chamber at least one committee hearing.
  • Prevent a bill from being deferred indefinitely without a recorded vote by committee members.

The resolution even pushes for more transparency among legislators who are also lawyers, noting, “Lobbyists are required to disclose who is paying them to lobby, but lawmakers who are hired as private practice attorneys are bound by law to keep their attorney-client relationships confidential.”

It calls for new House and Senate rules to restrict legislators from holding leadership positions if, within the preceding six months, they were hired as private-practice attorneys or were profit-sharing partners in firms barred from disclosing clients’ names or businesses.

In a separate resolution, the Democratic Party seeks “a fully publicly funded campaign program,” reasoning that “a healthy democracy requires a sufficient choice of candidates to be functional.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

With all this evidence of the need for reform, and the willingness of so many people to support reform, one might assume that good-government measures are destined to break through this year at the Legislature. But the session is short, and neither the House nor the Senate leadership has identified reform as one of its top priorities.

  • A Special Commentary Project

Reform proposals are not limited to the 31 measures from the Standards Commission. More than 150 other measures aimed at transparency and accountability have also been introduced this session from individual lawmakers, government agencies such as the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, the Campaign Spending Commission, the Office of Elections and at the request of others.

Civil Beat has published and will continuously update a reform measure tracker including bill numbers and companion measures, titles and descriptions, the latest status of the bills and the primary committee chair referrals and contacts.

At least in the case of the recommendations of the standards commission, Saiki has promised that “the public will have an opportunity to comment on them.”

This “opportunity” for citizens to say where they stand should be an obligation for those 68 Democratic legislators. If they choose to reject the recommendations of the standards commission and their own party platform, they need to at least explain themselves.

They can’t legitimately claim to be ignorant of that platform, because according to party bylaws every Democratic candidate is provided with a copy of it within seven days of the campaign filing deadline. Those same bylaws list “violation” of the platform as possible justification for expulsion, suspension or reprimand, although in practice nobody seems to get in that kind of trouble for not adhering to the party platform.

Reducing the influence of money in politics. Strengthening investigations and prosecutions of fraud. Applying at least part of the Sunshine Law to the Legislature. Fuller and more timely campaign spending reports. Reining in the dictatorial powers of legislative committee chairs.

For now, the chairs are still weaponized with the singular ability to sweep away all these reform proposals without explanation, allowing their colleagues to dodge the issues altogether.

And that is one reason why they are so urgently needed.

Read this next:

Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick: How To Reform Government Without Even Passing New Laws

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

My personal experience with the State Legislature this year, after submitting numerous measures on behalf of our kupuna and all condominium owners throughout Hawaii, is that the process needs to be dramatically improved. Besides the process being rushed, with no possibility of ever allowing Legislators or the public sufficient time to review all or most of the Bills (to see which ones have merit to move forward to hearings), the decision to move a Bill forward is left in the hands of one person, the Chair of the first Committee the Bill is referred to. This sole Representative or Senator has "all of the power" to decide which Bills they will allow to move forward to hearings, and which ones they will allow to die. What needs to be highlighted is that they represent only one district, in addition to only representing one political party. Even our U.S. Supreme Court has a fair process where four of the nine Justices must agree to hear cases submitted for review. Where is the Democracy in "one person" deciding, and for something so important to residents throughout Hawaii?

Greg · 7 months ago

The "chairs" need to be de-weaponized of their personal powers and greed. It's a "kakou" thing.

kealoha1938 · 7 months ago

More than passing interest in the Democratic Party of Hawaii calling for sunshine at the Lege, anti corruption measures, getting rid of poisonous dark money, stopping secretive workings, term limits. and so on. So if the Legislature fails to act - again— would the Democratic Party kick the leading rascals out of the party? That would be a desirable next step.

George3 · 7 months ago

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