Plenty Of Legislators Support Term Limits. So Why Won't They Let The Public Vote On Them? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Richard Wiens

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

Civil Beat surveyed many of Hawaii’s 76 lawmakers or researched their positions on term limits. Here’s what we found.

If the idea of putting term limits for Hawaii legislators before the public was allowed to be voted on by lawmakers themselves, it just might pass, a Civil Beat survey shows.

And if a proposed constitutional amendment for term limits ever made it to the ballot, there’s not much doubt voters would approve it — 70% supported legislative term limits in a 2018 Civil Beat poll.

But term limit measures are proposed every session, and they never make it out of the initial committee they’re referred to. In fact they don’t even get committee votes before being squashed by the chairs.

That happened again this year, and it prompted us to conduct our own floor vote of sorts. Over the past few weeks we’ve been aggressively seeking the views of all 76 legislators on term limits.

Nearly half of House members and more than a third of senators say they support term limits. There are enough undecideds in both chambers to give it a good shot if they held their position for two years.

In Hawaii, it takes a two-thirds majority vote of both houses to immediately send a proposed constitutional amendment to the electorate, but simple majorities in both houses can do the job if they hold up for two successive sessions.

This is Sunshine Week, a national observance of the importance of freedom of information and the public’s right to know how its governments operate. Many news organizations will be producing stories related to open government during the week. So we thought we’d contribute to the cause with a survey of our own lawmakers on an issue that is important to many people in Hawaii.

We emailed, called and visited the offices of all 76 legislators. A number of them never responded or made themselves available to answer our questions. For those, we looked through their responses to candidate Q&As during the last election or found comments they’d made online.

All told, we are able to report the current or recent positions of all but three senators (out of 25) and nine representatives (out of 51).

In the House, 23 representatives support legislative term limits, 16 oppose them and three are undecided. Even if most of those nine diehard no-commenters turned out to be opponents, a measure might pass. In fact, one House member who is personally opposed and another who is undecided said they would still vote in favor so that the public could ultimately decide the issue.

Over in the Senate, there are nine supporters, nine opponents and four undecided members. But one of those opponents and one undecided senator said that despite their personal views they would vote to send a constitutional amendment to the public.

How Many Ways Can You Ask The Question?

Getting state lawmakers to respond to surveys is never easy — even when they’re running for office. And when they’re in the midst of an intense session at the Capitol it’s even harder.

Check out our list, posted below, to see which way they came down on the question of term limits. But here’s how we did this survey.

We started with a Feb. 13 email seeking their personal views on legislative term limits and asking if, no matter their personal stands, they’d be willing to approve a proposed constitutional amendment so that the voters of Hawaii could decide.

By then, it was already clear that yet again, a committee chair was going to prevent any term limits measure from advancing this session. But our email argued that the public still had a right to know where legislators stand.

Anyone who hadn’t responded by Feb. 21 got an email reminder with the same questions.

A few days after that second round of emailing, with only about 20 responses in hand, we shifted to some other approaches:

  • During last year’s campaign season, many of the lawmakers who failed to answer either of our recent emails had stated their views on legislative term limits in their Civil Beat candidate Q&As. If they were willing to tell voters where they stood, those opinions should still stand up a few months later, right? Just like that, we had 32 more of them on the record. 
  • That narrowed it down to legislators who had ignored both our recent emails and our invitations to answer last year’s Q&A surveys. We started working the phones and walking into offices at the Capitol. We encountered many smiling staffers who explained their bosses were unavailable just then, but they’d get the message. Some requested that we email the questions a third time, which we did.
  • We took a more direct approach when we spotted scofflaws in the hallways. They always seemed to have time for quick chats about the weather, etc., but seldom had time right then to talk about term limits. Still, our blitzkrieg of calls and visits ultimately extracted about 10 more responses.
  • Finally, we went into the archives of the Legislature’s website and discovered that five of our nonrespondents had co-introduced legislative term limits in measures within the last couple of years. They’re also listed as supporters below, with links to the bills they were pushing — which of course never advanced far enough for anyone to vote.

The elusive three senators and nine representatives whose opinions are still unknown are also listed below.

The Nuances In Responses

You’re probably already familiar with the arguments for and against legislative term limits.

Opponents often say legislators should be the exception in a state where almost all other elected offices are term-limited because operating the Legislature is more complex than other governmental chores in Hawaii and lawmakers need many years to learn the ropes.

“The longer I serve the better I can represent my district,” said Rep. Dee Morikawa. “Legislative knowledge grows with time and that is very valuable for any elected official who wants to do the best they can in developing good policy for our State.”

Supporters often contend that without term limits legislative leaders run little fiefdoms at the Capitol and in the process build up sizable campaign war chests that make them almost impossible to dethrone at the ballot box.

“Even though I was one of the rare candidates who successfully defeated an incumbent in the 2022 primary, the system makes it difficult for challengers to prevail,” said Rep. Andrew Takuya Garrett. “The political culture here is for interested candidates to ‘wait their turn’ for either a retirement, resignation or reapportionment to create a vacancy … Politics should be a calling, not a career.”

Still, some interesting nuances emerged from the responses.

Sen. Les Ihara, for example, said he is a supporter but only with a “proviso” to protect especially popular longtime lawmakers.

Sen. Les Ihara supports term limits if they exempt longtime legislators who win two-thirds of the vote. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018)

“I support placing a constitutional amendment on term limits on the ballot for voters to decide whether to limit legislators to a maximum number of years, provided that a term-limited candidate may seek re-election and win only if that candidate gets two-thirds of affirmative votes for re-election,” Ihara said.

How long is too long to serve in the Legislature? Respondents prescribed limits ranging from eight years to 20, but a total of 16 was most common.

Should current legislators be “grandfathered in,” so that the limits only apply to terms that occur after the constitutional amendment is adopted? Most supporters said they should.

But think about that: If a limit of 16 years kicks in only after voter approval, some well-established senators and representatives would likely die of old age before they are termed-out.

  • A Special Commentary Project

A couple of term-limits supporters said there should be no grandfather clause at all — but good luck persuading longtime legislators to vote for that.

Rep. Terez Amato suggested a “phased approach” to the grandfather clause, “thus ensuring some level of continuity and institutional knowledge be continuously passed down before more senior legislators leave. Additionally I think this makes the proposition more likely to be palatable by current members. This may slow down change; however, it would also help ensure change.”

And Rep. Luke Evslin, an opponent, said he might support term limits if they aren’t forever. 

“If term limits are 16 years with the option to run again after taking a single election cycle off, I would not oppose placing a constitutional amendment before voters,” Evslin said.

Where They Stand

Here are the individual results of our efforts to determine where legislators stand on the issue of term limits (based on responses, 2022 candidate Q&As or recent introduction of a term limits measure.

Senate supporters: Brenton Awa, Les Ihara, Lorraine Inouye, Stanley Chang, Lynn DeCoite, Angus McKelvey, Brandon Elefante, Henry Aquino (co-introduced House Bill 123 in 2022) and Joy San Buenaventura (co-introduced Senate Bill 1301 in 2021).

Senate opponents: Mike Gabbard (supports allowing public vote), Carol Fukunaga, Gil Keith-Agaran, Karl Rhoads, Donna Mercado Kim, Glenn Wakai, Donovan Dela Cruz, Maile Shimabukuro and Jarrett Keohokalole.

Undecided senators: Sharon Moriwaki (supports allowing public vote), Chris Lee, Tim Richards and Kurt Fevella.

Silent senators (no response, no 2022 candidate Q&A and no recent introduction of a term limits measure): Dru Kanuha, Michelle Kidani and Ron Kouchi.

House supporters: Bertrand Kobayashi, Diamond Garcia, Amy Perruso, Lisa Marten, Elijah Pierick, Terez Amato, Andrew Garrett, Nicole Lowen, Adrian Tam, Elle Cochran, Mahina Poepoe, Trish La Chica, Sean Quinlan, Chris Todd, Sam Kong, Lauren Matsumoto, Rose Martinez, Kanani Souza, Natalia Hussey-Burdick, David Alcos, Gene Ward, Mark Nakashima and Richard Onishi (Nakashima and Onishi co-introduced HB 831 this year).

House opponents: David Tarnas, Jackson Sayama, John Mizuno (supports allowing public vote), Luke Evslin, Greg Takayama, Mark Hashem, Dee Morikawa, Greggor Ilagan, Jeanne Kapela, Sonny Ganaden, Micah Aiu, Scot Matayoshi, Jenna Takenouchi, Cory Chun, Rachele Lamosao and Darius Kila.

Undecided representatives: Della Au Belatti (supports allowing public vote), Scott Saiki and Kirstin Kahaloa.

Silent representatives (no response, no 2022 candidate Q&A and no recent introduction of a term limits measure): Cedric Gates, Troy Hashimoto, Daniel Holt, Linda Ichiyama, Lisa Kitagawa, Nadine Nakamura, Justin Woodson, Kyle Yamashita and Scott Nishimoto.

Here’s a link to easily contact your lawmakers and let them know what you think, including about their lack of response.

Civil Beat reporter Ben Angarone contributed to this report.

Read this next:

The Sunshine Blog: House Finance Chair Besieged, Public Money For Campaigns, Police Secrecy

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Richard Wiens

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

Latest Comments (0)

The only one legislator for term limits year after year was Sam Slom.....the Democrats don't want term limits and will never let the people vote on the issue or vote on the issue themselves....end of story! Reporter has a nice story...but he is naïve and taken in by the legislators who are all are more interested in spending money to get reelected via special interests.As others below said: Wink, wink....a snowball's chance in Kilauea!

Anson · 6 months ago

I highly commend Richard Wiens' reporting on this! However, I did not see in the article the names of the committee chairs who quashed the proposed legislation. Are they the same chairs who have quashed them in recent years? If members of the public want to attempt to influence the process, we need to know to whom to address our comments. Mahalo

Kathee · 6 months ago

Perhaps Senator Ihara meant "reliable public interest" longtime lawmakers? Some "popular" politicians do not belong in a public office. Some politicians go along and get along with the Establishment. Some are cronies of big interests and so on.In my observations, Ihara is a longtime lawmaker with no unethical behavior, scandals, or involvement with questionable interests. Ihara is also not beholden to big donors. It would be a great loss to see such lawmakers go.History will note that Senator Les Ihara was the ONLY senator who voted against the very quiet Public Lands Development Corporation (PLDC) Senate Bill 1555 ( Act 55) in 2011. The PLDC was quietly created to develop state lands in public-private partnerships. Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the PLDC Act 55 on May 20, 2011. The public caught wind about it after-the-fact and angrily repealed PLDC on April 11, 2013 as House Bill 1133. It was an inspiring show of unity amongst concerned residents of all counties. The same politicians who supported PLDC then supported the repeal.

ChoonJamesHI · 6 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.