Why Does Just One Person Get To Decide Important Issues Like Term Limits? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Richard Wiens

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

A “compromise” proposal months in the making gets swept away without even a committee vote.

Restricting how long people can serve as state lawmakers was always the longest of long shots when it comes to the reform measures under consideration this session in the Hawaii Legislature.

After all, even some of the people and organizations backing many other proposals for greater transparency and accountability in state government don’t support legislative term limits.

But the concept’s demise this week was still disturbing, because it came at the hands of a single person.

Should the Hawaii Constitution be amended to make 16 years the maximum amount of time anyone can serve as a legislator? Don’t ask the state’s voters. And don’t ask the full state House and Senate. And don’t even ask the members of the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs who conducted a public hearing Wednesday on House Bill 796.

Just ask Committee Chair David Tarnas, who put the matter to rest all by himself.

In one more example of the dictatorial power of committee chairs in the Hawaii Legislature, Tarnas singlehandedly torpedoed one of the proposals of the House Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct.

Rep. David Tarnas, right, makes the decision on term limits all by himself Wednesday. (Screenshot/Hawaii Legislature/2023)

At least he said why he did it. The fact is that chairs sometimes kill bills with no explanation whatsoever, which happens to be the subject of another Standards Commission proposal, HB 725, that was also deferred without a vote at the same hearing.

Even though the terms of most other elected officials are already limited in Hawaii, applying the restriction to legislators is a contentious issue. The chair of the Standards Commission, retired judge Dan Foley, acknowledged as much in his testimony before the Judiciary committee Wednesday.

“If there are concerns with that, please see me afterward, I’m happy to explain it further.”

Rep. David Tarnas

“I think we’ve maybe come up with a proposal that can dissatisfy a whole bunch of people,” Foley said, noting that his commission heard support for eight-year limits on legislative service as well as opposition to any restriction whatsoever.

The result was “something of a compromise,” Foley said, adding, “the public, we feel, wants term limits. They feel it will help address corruption, rightfully or wrongly, (and) provide for fresh ideas with a turnover.”

Even though a big majority of the people who submitted written testimony supported term limits, some heavy hitters were opposed, including the League of Women Voters.

Tarnas referred repeatedly to the league’s opposition, and seemed to have an uncomfortable moment when he realized that its spokesperson, Janet Mason, who had provided remote testimony on another measure earlier, was no longer online when it was time for term limits testimony.

Instead, he took it upon himself to restate much of the league’s written position out loud “for the public so they understand.”

“Establishing term limits is not the way to achieve a representative mix,” the league’s written testimony states. “Free and fair elections is the way to achieve this outcome.”

It goes on to say that its analysis shows that from 2012 to 2022, 56% of the Senate and 65% of the House turned over. “At least for the past ten years, voters have already succeeded in limiting the terms of most legislators,” the league wrote.

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Tarnas didn’t elaborate on any other written testimony, such as that of former legislator Gary Hooser, who wrote, “Term limits will put a stop to the do-nothing, take no risk, keep your head down, go along to get along, ‘long game’ strategy that too often infects those who aspire to serve in elected office. Term limits will also put a stop to the excessive accumulation of power and the nonstop campaign fundraising that too often defines long-term incumbency.”

When it came time for decision-making — his, not anybody else’s — Tarnas said, “I agree with the League of Women Voters, what we need to do is improve our elections, make it easier for people to elect, to vote, and that we see from our change-over in the composition of our House and Senate that elections work.”

Not an unreasonable opinion. But it would have been nice to hear those of his colleagues.

“If there are concerns with that,” Tarnas told his fellow committee members, “please see me afterward, I’m happy to explain it further.”

In private.

Other term limits proposals are still technically alive this session, including a companion measure in the Senate (SB 1424) as well as two other House bills, HB 626 and HB 831. In reality, they are dead, because they are already in Tarnas’ committee or would end up there.

That’s how it works in the Legislature.

At least for now.

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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)

Political parties represent people. Elected representatives represent the will of the people. To use a liberal term, an interest group wants to limit terms of elected representatives. This is a call for government to control the will of the people, which has been implemented by the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution, which in turn was ratified by the will of the people. Term limits require a constitutional amendment. The people must will such an amendment through public pressure, endorsing candidates supporting an amendment, and opposing candidates who do not support an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Hawaii. The will of the people to limit terms will again be measured in 2024. If the people do not re-elect the members of the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs, then their replacements can propose a constitutional amendment for term limits. But if that happens, then the League of Women Voters is correct: the people determine term limits for their representatives.

SwingMan · 7 months ago

I used to think that an old time politician worked with his long time experiences and knew what needed to be done to solve people problems. However, with the greed for and power of money today, the politicians choice is with the campaign donation supports whom they now are obligated to and in the clutch of their fist forever. Term limit is a solution but the replacement politicians will fall into the same money power and greed when money is given during the campaigning. Seems like a no win situation.

kealoha1938 · 7 months ago

As I've written before term limits won't solve these problems. Tarnas didn't make that decision himself: it was a leadership/Demo caucus decision, he's just the dude that did the deed.

MarkS_OceanDem · 7 months ago

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