Bluer Skies Or Continued Cloudiness? Legislators Are About To Choose - 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.

Let your lawmakers know where you stand on efforts to reform state government, because the next two weeks are crucial.

We’re about to find out if this is truly a watershed moment for government reform in Hawaii or if it’s business as usual at the Capitol.

Sunshine bills, meet the darkest phase of the legislative session.

Over the next two weeks, about three dozen measures to make state government more open and accountable will commingle with hundreds of other bills in conference committees, where a handful of legislators will negotiate behind closed doors to decide their fates.

No additional testimony will be accepted, and the public hearings will be brief affairs with only the Senate and House chairs usually speaking. The real action happens outside of public view, and the powerful money committee chairs will also be weighing in on pretty much any proposal that contains dollar signs or other financial impact.

These late-session conference committees await all measures in which different versions passed the two chambers. Many bills die in the darkness.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We urge the committee chairs and other conferees to take a different tack with the sunshine bills, and we urge you, the public, to urge them as well. They need to open up with us about what’s transpiring with these measures, and make the extra effort to reconcile their differences and keep them alive.

Left, Senator Chris Lee and Representative/ Chair Henry Aquino hand off documents during conference committee after joint House Senate vote.
A conference committee meeting at the Capitol. While the meetings are open to the public, the public is mostly left in the dark on bill negotiations. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

They are the responses, after all, to what citizens perceive as a “deep moral crisis” in government after a series of scandals involving public officials. Some of the measures come from the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, formed by the House in response to those scandals. Others were proposed by the State Ethics and Campaign Spending commissions and by reform-minded legislators.

They shouldn’t be bargaining chips in secret negotiations.

Several of these could be real game-changers. And even though the details are being negotiated in secret, the public can still influence what happens.

When it comes to passage of the sunshine bills, there are no villains — at least not yet.

There have been some unfortunate moments, such as when a committee chairman torpedoed a measure to establish term limits for legislators that deserved far more discussion. A bill that is still alive has been amended so heavily that it bears no resemblance to the initial Standards Commission proposal to prohibit candidates from regifting their campaign donations to other candidates and community groups.

Some sunshine bills have already died for this session, although they can be reconsidered next year. Others have already cleared the Legislature, even inspiring an early signing ceremony by the governor. Perhaps the most significant establishes the common-sense requirement that lobbyists reveal what they are lobbying for.

But the already approved sunshine bills are not as substantial as those headed for conference committees. One could lead to a comprehensive system of public financing for all candidates seeking election to state and county office as early as 2026. Another would cap charges for reproducing government records. Others address conflicts of interest and the penalties for forgery and obstruction of justice.

Several of these could be real game-changers. And even though the details are being negotiated mostly in secret, the public can still influence what happens by contacting the appropriate legislative leaders, committee chairs and other conferees to let them know you want the measures to become law.

The Legislature’s website contains contact information for all state lawmakers and a section updating all the conference committee bills. If all goes well, the names of conferees for all the sunshine bills will be announced in the next few days.

In addition, Civil Beat will continue updating its own bill-tracking site daily.

  • A Special Commentary Project

There are many ways for bills to die in the next two weeks — it happens every session at this point:

  • They could be killed outright by one of the chambers not even assigning a conference committee to look at the differences.
  • They could be killed by either the Senate or House conference committee chair without any effort to address the different versions of a bill.
  • They could die because, after negotiations, the House and Senate can’t or won’t agree to resolve the differences in the two versions.
  • And finally, they could die because one or both of the money committee chairs don’t want to pay for them — even if the bill in question wasn’t referred to one of the money committees.

All those deaths could occur with little or no public explanation.

The sunshine bills deserve better. They should be reconciled and brought back into the light of full floor votes before the session’s May 4 adjournment.

That is when we’ll know if it’s a new, brighter day for government in the islands, or if it’s time for the people to consider more radical solutions to break the stranglehold of legislative leaders who so far continue to operate under rules — such as the conference committee procedures — that keep their power intact.

Term limits for legislators? A statewide citizens initiative process? A constitutional convention?

Stay tuned.

Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: Some Election Reforms May Be Too Much To Handle This Year

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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)

Where's Fasi when we need him?

MakakiloMan · 1 month ago

The decisions are all predetermined...who kicks in campaign funds, who knows "a guy", etc. Common folk are fooling themselves if you thing govt works for the "common" any level. Money, corruption, etc. Remember, the real was initially 3.5 b with a 1.5 buffer...we are are 12 plus and will hit 16 before we done.Its funny how the common person thinks we have a say....

Haoleboy55 · 1 month ago

Term limits for legislators? A statewide citizens initiative process? A constitutional convention?We should confidently change the question marks to exclamation marks!

Joseppi · 1 month ago

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