It's Hard Not To Be Disappointed In What Was Supposed To Be A Big Year For Government Reform - Honolulu Civil Beat

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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.

There was a lot of talk about making things better this session, and some sunshine bills were passed. But the big ones died in darkness.

You could argue that Hawaii’s 2023 legislative session was a success for the reform movement due to its sharpened focus on making state government more transparent, ethical and accountable.

But it was also an infuriatingly typical session. Many reform measures were shot down, sometimes with no explanation, other times with bad explanations.

The Legislature that adjourned Thursday is too much like the one that convened in January, with a handful of power-brokers calling the shots behind closed doors.

There were plenty of proposals to change that, some of them the work of a state commission formed last year after a series of scandals involving public officials.

If this was our big chance to change the game, as reform-minded Sen. Karl Rhoads contended in March, it’s hard not to be disappointed.

A number of small to mid-level reform bills were approved on their first try. Some have already been signed into law by Gov. Josh Green, and he has indicated he’s inclined to also approve other sunshine bills that reach his desk.

But if the push for better ways to conduct the people’s business continues to gather momentum, maybe we’ll look back on 2023 as the beginning of something good.

Ultimately, the session was a collection of short stories: the approvals and rejections of dozens of measures designed to clean up government.

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Here’s a look at some of the happy and sad endings.

First, The Good News

Cleaner elections: At long last, Hawaii will follow the lead of numerous other states and produce a voter guide beginning with next year’s election, assuming Green signs Senate Bill 1076.

Despite the traditionally low voter turnout in the islands, legislators have long resisted this move and it wasn’t easily accomplished this time. A voter guide bill proposed by last year’s Commission to Improve Standards and Practices (also known as the Foley commission) died early in the House with the Office of Elections, the Attorney General’s Office and the Legislative Reference Bureau voicing various worries, including increased workloads and liability.

Before they mail off their ballots, voters will now have the benefit of being able to consult an online voters guide. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

The measure that ultimately cleared the Legislature on the session’s final day will contain candidate statements and explanations of statewide ballot measures produced by the attorney general and county measures by the appropriate corporation counsel.

We would have preferred that printed guides be sent to all voters so they could most easily look at them while filling out their mail ballots, but instead the guide will be online. Printed copies will be available at libraries, however, and the state will mail out notices to all voters telling them how to access the online guide.

Meanwhile, it’ll be a little easier to identify just who exactly is seeking your vote thanks to House Bill 1294, which will require the state Office of Elections and Campaign Spending Commission to include a candidate’s legal name “wherever the name requested to be printed on the ballot is used, except on the ballot.”

The legal name must appear on the websites of the two agencies and on their voter information materials. The original measure would have extended that requirement to the ballot itself, but it was decided that would be unfair to candidates widely known by other versions of their names.

If that seems like no big deal, consider this 2022 case of a legislative candidate who dropped his last name when he ran for office.

Three other sunshine bills of consequence related to elections passed the Legislature:

  • Senate Bill 1189 gives the public and the media an earlier peek at campaign contributions with an additional reporting deadline of Feb. 28 in general election years. Currently, candidates do not have to reveal contributions until well into the summer. Even more frequent reporting is what’s needed, but this is a small step forward.
  • House Bill 463 requires noncandidate committees to report donations made or gifts received of $500 or more (the current threshold is $1,000).
  • House Bill 92 increases the penalties against big-money super PACs that violate campaign contribution and expenditure restrictions and makes it clear that the people behind the super PAC will be personally responsible for paying fines if it runs out of money.
Capitol building.
Several new bills will affect how lobbying occurs at the Capitol. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Stepping into the lobby: You had to figure that legislators would find it easier to bring more transparency to other people than to themselves, and that proved to be the case with bills concerning lobbyists.

House Bill 137 seems simple enough: It requires lobbyists to disclose specifically what was “commented on, supported by, or opposed” by the lobbyists. But that’s actually a big deal, because right now when they file their statement of expenditure they only have to note the general subject areas they’re lobbying on.

“Hawaii’s lobbying laws are intended to provide transparency around lobbyist activity,” testified Robert Harris, executive director of the State Ethics Commission that proposed the bill. “This measure furthers that purpose by requiring specific description of what the lobbyist engaged on, versus a broad subject area. While this may put an additional burden on lobbyists, the net benefit to the public greatly outweighs the burden.”

Impressively, the measure flew through the Legislature and has already been signed into law. It takes effect Jan. 1, 2025.

As for other sunshine bills of note related to lobbyists: 

  • Senate Bill 1493 prohibits lobbyists from making gifts to elected officials or candidates shortly before, during and shortly after legislative sessions.
  • House Bill 141 requires legislators to disclose the names of lobbyists who they have relationships with.
  • House Bill 138 establishes mandatory training for lobbyists to “ensure that all persons engaged in lobbying activities are aware of current laws.”

Family ties: House Bill 717 prohibits state employees from hiring, promoting or supervising their relatives and awarding contracts to their relatives or business partners.

This is a welcome strengthening of the stand against nepotism. While employees were already prohibited from providing preferential treatment to relatives, a “bright-line rule” was needed, testified the State Ethics Commission attorney Kee Campbell, who noted that “numerous nepotism complaints are received each year.”

The original measure applied the restrictions to legislators as well, but that was removed in favor of allowing the House and Senate to use their own rules to deal with nepotism.

Inmate deaths: The governor has already signed House Bill 823 that expands reporting requirements for inmates who die while incarcerated, including those housed on the mainland. It also covers the deaths of correctional employees.

Those deaths must now be posted online a week after the Department of Public Safety director reports the information to the governor and Legislature. The details include the names of the deceased, where and when they died, and how.

Halawa Correctional Facility inmates in module during tour 2019.
When inmates die while incarcerated, the state will now be required to release more information about what happened. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Until 2020, prison officials did not announce prisoner deaths publicly, but would confirm a death and identify the deceased inmate if the media inquired about a specific case. That changed in late 2020, when corrections officials stopped identifying any deceased prisoners.

Civil Beat sued the state over the new policy in 2021, and a judge ruled last year the department must release the names of inmates who die in state custody.

The Ones That Got Away

Game-changers: Three measures had the potential to shift the ground beneath a Legislature that hordes power in the hands of a select few who make monumental decisions in secret negotiations. Two died early at the hands of committee chairs — while a third advanced all the way to conference committee before plunging into a black hole.

We’ve already lamented the late-session dismantling of Senate Bill 1543, which would have significantly expanded public financing of campaigns for candidates who could demonstrate sufficient grassroots support.

The rejection of SB 1543 preserves the typical financial advantage that incumbents have over their challengers. (Danny de Gracia/Civil Beat/2019)

Incumbent legislators almost always win their reelection bids, and a big reason is they generally have a lot more campaign cash than their challengers. Thus it was no surprise that SB 1543 was first gutted and then extinguished without any real public explanation by the Senate Ways and Means chair, Donovan Dela Cruz, who has nearly $1 million in his campaign fund.

We’ve also detailed the early-session demise of House Bill 796, which would have asked voters to approve a constitutional amendment establishing term limits for legislators. It was squelched by a committee chair after a public hearing. Rep. David Tarnas has said he did talk to his colleagues before killing it, but it should have been at least debated and put to a vote.

Term limits already exist for many elected officials in Hawaii, but expanding them to state legislators is controversial. While it’s a sure-fire way to move along squatters who live much of their adult lives in the Capitol, it’s opposed by even some good-government organizations who point to the learning curve for legislators and defend the right of voters to keep re-electing them. The Foley commission itself was divided 4-3 on the issue.

Most of the measures that didn’t become law can be resurrected next year. But don’t hold your breath.

Civil Beat hasn’t taken a stand on legislative term limits, but we will be exploring the concept further now that the session has ended. One thing we do know: It’s a discussion that should not have been silenced by a lone committee chair.

Senate Bill 149 would have asked voters to approve another constitutional amendment, this one establishing a year-round Legislature. It offered compelling benefits:

  • Legislative leaders often point to the current tight time deadlines (one sponsor of SB 149 calls it “four months of chaos”) to justify operating behind closed doors for the sake of expediency. That excuse would be gone because the bill would require the Legislature to reconvene at least once a month.
  • It would prohibit legislators from holding other jobs, which could reduce conflicts of interest.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee amended the bill so that the Legislature would finally be subject to the Sunshine Law that ensures open discussion of the people’s business.

Like term limits, the concept of a full-time Legislature is controversial, especially with an unknown price tag. But it deserved a better fate than to be ignored by the Senate Ways and Means Committee after passing Judiciary.

Campaign contributions: The compact legislative session when so many decisions are being made is not the time for legislators to be accepting campaign contributions. House Bill 726 would have prohibited contributions during session, and it appeared to be on a fast track after getting unanimous approval in the House.

But in the Senate it was one more victim of a committee chair exercising his power to kill a bill singlehandedly. This one went down at the hands of Judiciary chair Karl Rhoads, who said he didn’t think it was fair to incumbents.

Three other notable measures regarding campaign contributions suffered late deaths in conference committee:

  • House Bill 724 would have prohibited state and county contractors and grantees, their officers and immediate family members from contributing to candidates while their contracts or grants were in effect. The Campaign Spending Commission and the League of Women Voters testified it was necessary to stop a common but corrupt form of campaign contributions. It sailed through the House and Senate with only a minor amendment sending it to conference committee. There, it died without another word.
  • Senate Bill 627 would have allowed the use of campaign funds to pay for child care and to care for household members. That work especially impacts female candidates, who are often the primary caregivers, and the bill theoretically would have opened the door to more parents of young children to run for office. It died simply because it didn’t gain “release” from the House Finance chair, even though it carried no fiscal appropriation.
  • In its original form, House Bill 727 would have ended the practice of candidates regifting their campaign contributions to charities or other candidates, the theory being that they were using the money to curry favor from others — not its intended purpose. But it was dramatically amended to actually make it easier to give campaign cash to other candidates, so it was no great loss.

Public records: House Bill 719 would have capped the sometimes-excessive costs for providing public records and waiving fees altogether when the records are being requested in the public interest.

House and Senate conferees worked hard to resolve their differences on the bill, only to see it die when it failed to gain “release” from the money chairs.

Members of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct with Gov. Josh Green and Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke at a signing ceremony for sunshine bills. Retired Judge Dan Foley is at left. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

County ethics: House Bill 134 would have made one-time state grants to the four county governments to support their own constitutionally required ethics commissions — woefully understaffed on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

It was proposed by the Foley commission out of concern that public scandals have involved county officials as well as legislators. Like all of the commission’s proposals, it received a public hearing in the House. Ultimately, and perhaps not unreasonably, legislators concluded that the counties should not be bailed out for failing to keep their own houses clean.

Final thought: Yes, this was the first session for the biennial Legislature, so most of the measures that didn’t become law can be resurrected next year. But don’t hold your breath. It’s actually unusual for bills to get pulled up again the following year.

Better that the rest of 2023 play out like last year’s scandal-inspired soul-searching, with serious thought given to the best ways to significantly change a Legislature that remains mostly unwilling to change itself.

Read this next:

Russell Ruderman: This Year's Legislature Was Much Worse Than Business As Usual

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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)

Of course … from the get go…our new Governor Josh Green; most of his cabinet appointees was voted out by "power-house" long time members.Moving forward…most bills outlining a new wave of government was squashed.Same -ol " !!Keep pushing forward Gov …. Our Aloha State is turning into a Cesspool !!I was born and raised in Wahiawa…Okinawa/Hawaiian from Laie & Honokaa.We are just a Community of Islands…remember that !! Auwe ….

M_Walker · 7 months ago

Opponents of sunshine have been delaying things, hoping that the weather would change -- and it did. As a result of weakened public pressure, marginal sunshine legislation was passed, which enabled the Legislature to say, "See, we did something!" Those who think that this session sets the stage for substantial sunshine legislation to be passed next year are dreaming. It's only going to get worse unless there are more indictments.

sleepingdog · 7 months ago

I want to start with making a correction to the opening comment of this article. "It's NOT Hard Not To Be Disappointed In What Was Supposed To Be A Big Year For Government Reform", Session after session the voters, people of Hawaii are let down and nothing to look forward to .Governor Green has tried so hard to handle a lot of the Politicians indecisive or laziness to do the work that they were voted into Office to get done. But these next election(s) I'm taking a different approach to make sure who I vote for is the person that will get in there (if elected) and do what they promise to get in there and do. I have Notebooks (2 of them thus far) focusing on the disappointments of the Senators and Council Members who have absolutely no business occupying a seat, I mean if we stop and look at this current session that just ended the only ones that got anything in their favor was the Politicians with the 64% raise, and the teachers who really deserve that 64% increase more than any of the Politicians, once again, barely got nothing except more reasons to leave Hawaii.

unclebob61 · 7 months ago

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