7 Things Hawaii Lawmakers Could Do Now To Vastly Improve The Legislative Process - 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.

With 24 hours’ notice and simple majority votes, the House and Senate could diminish the power of committee chairs and strengthen the hands of everyone else.

Hawaii lawmakers still don’t get it. The path to more transparency and accountability in the legislative process is not that hard. It just takes political will.

Here are a few things the public thinks are pretty easy fixes. People suggest this in their testimony on bills and reform proposals, in the comment sections and letters to the editor of local news organizations. Even some lawmakers have started speaking up about simple rule changes that would help them and their constituents.

• Take away the power of committee chairs to single-handedly kill bills. Require a full committee vote for a bill to advance or die.

• Make testimony available to lawmakers 24 hours ahead of a hearing, especially a hearing where decision-making is going to happen. Make testimony available to the public at the same time, at least 24 hours in advance and when new testimony or late testimony is filed.

• Make amended draft bills available to the public in a timely manner — before they are voted on — and require committee chairs to explain how and why the bill is being amended.

• Do away with allowing lawmakers to vote  “yes with reservations.” Legislators should not have it both ways — just vote yes or no or abstain. The National Conference of State Legislatures does not know of any other state that permits voting “with reservations.” 

• Identify the requester when a bill is introduced “by request.” The public needs to know who really wants this legislation, even if it’s a state agency but certainly when it’s a private person or organization.

  • A Special Commentary Project

• Limit the number of committee referrals for bills to only those committees that have a substantive interest in the subject matter. Multiple referrals — triple and more — can often make it almost impossible to move a bill before deadlines. And unless there is a legitimate fiscal component to legislation, there is little reason to have it heard by the money committees, where worthy bills often perish without a vote or hearing. 

• Address the fiscal impact of a bill much sooner in the process. The cost of a proposal or program is too often left blank until the very end of the session where the fiscal impact is hammered out behind closed doors in conference committee. The money committees need the dollar amounts to fairly consider bills, which regularly are killed because House Finance and Senate Ways and Means say they don’t know the cost.

Hawaii lawmakers could easily make their own process of acting on bills and resolutions more accessible to the public and even their own members. So why don’t they just do it? (PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014)

We’ve yet to hear House and Senate leadership explain why these things are not doable. In fact, in many ways it seems as if House and Senate rules are designed to make it easier for legislators at the expense of the public they serve.

The House just updated the rules that guide its operations, including how a standards of conduct committee can discipline members. The new rules included tweaks on ethics and conflicts of interest, and established a long-overdue guide on nepotism – something the Senate already has in place.

The Senate did practically nothing to change its rules and guidelines, except to say it supports continuing livestreaming hearings and accepting virtual participation — something that is now solidly a part of the legislative process, thanks to technology being finally put in place during the Covid-19 era of learning to conduct business remotely. 

But neither the House nor the Senate showed any interest in addressing the commonsense fixes we’ve laid out above. Why not?

This past week, the Senate began posting legislative allowances on the Capitol website. People can now look and see what their lawmakers are spending the roughly $16,000 in their legislative accounts on. 

Decision-making in the Hawaii Legislature is frustrating, murky and undemocratic. It is all the more galling because campaign donations invariably flow heavily to the most powerful of chairs and those in leadership, creating the strong perception of paying to play.

The Hawaii Legislature has the ability to easily become more transparent and ethical anytime it wants to by simply changing its internal rules. It only takes 24 hours notice, and a simple majority.

Read this next:

Gov. Josh Green Says He's Already Taking Steps To Make Hawaii Government More Open

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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)

"In fact, in many ways it seems as if House and Senate rules are designed to make it easier for legislators at the expense of the public they serve"This is the most accurate summation of politics in Hawaii, and we thank you for stating the obvious to those paying attention.Civil Beat has time and again driven this point home with revelations of hypocrisy and corruption, and yet, the same old politics continues shamelessly and boldly.Will our new Governor deliver on his promises, or will he become an enabler for the status-quo?More people in Hawaii need to pay attention and read Civil Beat.

Joseppi · 6 months ago

No, the lawmaker get it fine. Until there are political consequences for not doing X, X won't get done. It's not the voters who first need to be convinced, not the entrenched legislators. I applaud CB's efforts, but ignoring this reality will get you no where.

CATipton · 6 months ago

This is a good set of reforms that could be implemented next week, if there was the will to do it. But certainly by next session. Keep hammering at them. The Legislature will be better for it.

MarkS_OceanDem · 6 months ago

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