Chad Blair: Where The Sun Still Shines At The Hawaii State Capitol - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Dozens of worthy campaign, lobbying and ethical reform measures remain alive but face an uncertain outcome in the dark hole that is conference committee.

A 24-hour period last week illustrated the promise and pitfalls of sunshine bills at the State Capitol.

It began at 2 p.m. Wednesday in a House Finance Committee hearing that opened with discussion of the state buying the Wahiawa irrigation system, included consideration of forbidding the sale of animal fur products and concluded with a plan to prohibit concealed weapons in hospitals, schools and other “sensitive” locations.

Near the end of the marathon hearing, five “sunshine” bills intended to reform Hawaii’s government were also discussed, including one that is described as a game changer for local politics: Senate Bill 1543, which could lead to a comprehensive system of public financing for all candidates seeking election to state and county office as early as 2026.

The hearing under Chair Kyle Yamashita accepted oral testimony. Dozens of testifiers took to the podium to share their thoughts, sometimes at great length, and with multiple followup questions from finance committee members.

No buzzer sounded to cut anyone off. It was an open, democratic process, wearying at times but also showing government at its best — listening to the people and responding.

Reps. Lisa Kitagawa and Kyle Yamashita, the House Finance Committee vice chair and chair, at Wednesday’s hearing on sunshine and other bills. (Screenshot/2023)

The Finance Committee hearing was a far different affair than the joint Senate committee “hearing” that concluded around 2 p.m. Thursday on the eve of the three-day Easter weekend.

That’s where the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to accept a version of House Bill 719 intended to cap the charges for reproducing government records — another game-changer — that had been crafted in private by the state’s attorney general and the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

JDC had met earlier in the day with the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which unanimously approved HB 719. But Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads refused to have his committee vote at the same time as WAM, as he and his colleagues had only just received the latest draft, one that had yet to be officially posted on the bill’s website. JDC-WAM then recessed for a couple of hours so Rhoads and team could read up on the latest language.

In contrast to the Finance hearing the day before, Judiciary and WAM did not accept oral testimony on HB 719, stating that because the legislation had already been heard in a previous committee it wasn’t necessary — even though it was now a very different bill. And the agenda on the single bill was posted just as time was running out to meet an internal legislative deadline.

Supporters of the revamped HB 719 argued that it was a compromise in the public interest, but one critic viewed it as allowing the government to block access to public records — the opposite of the bill’s original intent.

The dual hearings were a vivid illustration of why sunshine bills are so important at the 2023 Legislature, how they are processed (properly or otherwise) by lawmakers, and why people are right to worry what might happen as lawmakers prepare for the two-week conference committee period that starts April 17.

Ways and Means Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz at a joint hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee April 6 on the public records fee bill. (Screenshot/2023)

Held in advance of the final week of session, it’s where dozens of bills will live or die, largely in closed-door deliberations and with little explanation provided once the bloodbath is over.

The Finance hearing gives hope for the process but raises a familiar red flag.

The hope: Before the vote on SB 1543 Yamashita said, “Members, I know there was some discussion as to safeguards that need to be put in place and where the money would come from, but I think it’s something that all of us want to have — a fair process. So I think we just keep this message going for further discussion.”

The red flag: SB 1543 will require $30 million to pay for two years of the public funding. As is common, the latest draft leaves the dollar amounts blank.

In the final hours of conference committee, it is money — or rather, the inclination on the part of some not to spend it — that ultimately is the reason bills are snuffed. SB 1543 also has a defective effective date of June 30, 3000, meaning that the House and Senate conferees have to agree on a realistic date for the law to go into effect before the bill can go to Gov. Josh Green.

As for HB 719, WAM Chair Donovan Dela Cruz said at Thursday’s hearing that he didn’t want to take the blame should the bill die — even though it was Dela Cruz who refused to hear the bill until it was changed to his liking.

One other important development happened during that same 24-hour period: Former Rep. Ty Cullen was sentenced to two years in federal prison for taking cash bribes and other payments in order to influence legislation involving wastewater. It is the Cullen crimes and that of former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English (who is already in prison) that led to the call for sunshine.

Alive, And Kicking?

Some sunshine bills still await major votes this week in House or Senate floor sessions, but here is my scorecard on the most notable measures remaining. Check Civil Beat’s own tracker for the latest updates on all the sunshine bills.


At least five measures seek to increase penalties for various felony offenses including fraud and obstruction of justice. Three of the bills were recommended by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct — the Foley commission. The fourth comes from the Honolulu prosecutor’s office and the fifth from the governor.

House Bill 707 would make it a class C felony to make false, fictitious or fraudulent claims against the government and would also disqualify a person convicted from holding elected office for five years. House Bill 711 creates the offense of fraud as a class B felony as well as disqualifies those charged with fraud from holding elected office for 10 years. And House Bill 986 would establish a class C felony offense of official misconduct to prohibit someone in their official capacity acting in a way that benefits the official.

House Bill 710 makes clear that obstruction of justice includes intentionally trying to influence the due administration of justice including by coercion or threat of force. And House Bill 126 proposes that a person convicted of bribery must pay a fine of up to $250,000 in addition to imprisonment or probation.

Not making the cut this session: Senate Bill 1187 that would have increased the post-employment restriction for former legislators from 12 months to 24 months.


At least four bills address conflicts of interest involving lawmakers and lobbyists. Two come from the Foley commission, one from the Hawaii State Ethics Commission and one from Rhoads.

House Bill 141 requires legislators to include in their financial disclosures the names of lobbyists they have ties to. House Bill 724 amends the ban against contributions to candidates and noncandidate committees (i.e., a group organized to influence elections) by state and county contractors to include the owners, officers and immediate family members of those same contractors.

Gov. Josh Green signing seven “sunshine” bills in his office last month. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

House Bill 717 would block state employees from hiring or promoting relatives and household members — in other words, nepotism. It would also prevent an employee from awarding a contract if the employee’s relative or household member is an executive officer of or holds a large ownership interest in that business.

And Senate Bill 1493 would put a stop to before-, during- and after-legislative session contributions from and spending by lobbyists to elected officials, candidates and noncandidate committees.

But two related measures — one from the Ethics Commission and one from the Foley commission — are dead: House Bill 726 and House Bill 89, which would have barred state and county elected officials from asking for and taking campaign cash during session.


A number of bills heading to conference committee look to improve the electoral process. 

House Bill 1294 says it is necessary for all candidates to use their legal names, Senate Bill 47 aims to place in random order the candidate names on ballots, while Senate Bill 1076 calls for the Hawaii Office of Elections to prepare a digital voter information guide.

Senate Bill 1189 forces candidates to file a preliminary campaign finance report on Feb. 28 in general election years, months earlier than is now required. And Senate Bill 182 modifies the penalties and filing deadline for candidate financial disclosures — a bill that Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris told the House Finance Committee last week was “not sexy” but an important housekeeping measure.

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Senate Bill 627 would let a candidate, treasurer or candidate committee use campaign funds for the candidate’s child care and “vital” household dependent care costs. Maui County Council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez told House Finance that the legislation would help more women get elected.

Finally, on the cutting-room floor is Senate Bill 1212, which sought to nix the campaign tactic known as “redboxing” — a way to circumvent campaign finance laws “that strictly prohibit candidates from coordinating” with noncandidate committee political campaign efforts, according to the bill.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

Sadly nothing will ever change much in the Hawaii legislature until we can return to a dynamic two party form of representative government. Today our one party political ruling class is deeply intrenched and beholden to an uncountable establishment that is very resilient to changed or any form of external pressure from the voters. This is the key problem we face and until this is corrected we can not expect much to happen otherwise.

Spin64 · 8 months ago

Bravo, Chad. Can't wait to find out how the public financing bill gets resolved. Would be a giant step toward wringing the lobbyists' $$ out of the system.

MarkS_OceanDem · 8 months ago

Thanks Chad!! Campaign donations still worrisome, and need for permanent eviction from ever running for public office or working in some related position such as a lobbyist. Wish losing 100% of pension would be on the table for those convicted of criminal felonies. That would be incentive to keep noses cleaner. Be interesting to see what is going to come up with Cullen's reduction of sentence. Fingers crossed.

Concernedtaxpayer · 8 months ago

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