Make Government Reform A Long-Term Commitment - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Nikos Leverenz

Nikos Leverenz served on the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct and the Dual-Use Cannabis Task Force in 2022. He is the Grants and Advancement Manager at Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center and serves on the Community Advisory Board of Common Cause Hawaii.

It is imperative for Hawaii’s policymakers to continually explore meaningful ways to make government at every level more open, transparent, deliberative and responsive.

Last year I had the honor of serving on Speaker Scott Saiki’s Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, which was formed in the wake of federal indictments of two lawmakers in February 2022.

Much of the CISC’s work has been signed into law or is likely to become law thanks to House and Senate leadership’s endorsement, the diligent efforts of Judiciary Chairs Rep. David Tarnas and Sen. Karl Rhoads and their staff, and the broad commitment of Gov. Josh Green.

Yet the CISC’s vital work should not be an end point. Instead, its work product could serve as the beginning of a continual assessment of how to improve the quality and character of Hawaii’s civic life.

With an ongoing far-reaching federal investigation into public corruption that’s likely to implicate more state and local officials in the months ahead, it is imperative for Hawaii’s policymakers to continually explore meaningful ways to make government at every level more open, transparent, deliberative and responsive.

Improving Elections And Government Operations

Former California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh observed that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Money from wealthy donors and corporations often play an outsized role in campaigns. No elected body is free from the impact of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC.  

The CISC’s final report observed that public financing of campaigns “expands the reach of many small donors and can relieve candidates of the need to rely on the support of special interest groups or large donors.” The Legislature pursued an ambitious public financing bill introduced by Sen. Karl Rhoads, Senate Bill 1543, through most of the session. The bill garnered significant public support, including former governors John Waihee and Neil Abercrombie. 

  • A Special Commentary Project

A recent policy brief from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization provides a good look at the potential for a more robust public financing system. Former Gov. George Ariyoshi, who signed the Campaign Spending Commission legislation into law in 1973, wrote in 2020 that Hawaii’s election financing policy needs “an enlightened discussion and a purposeful movement for more far-reaching reforms.”

The CSC is well-positioned to implement future reforms with additional staff resources. In addition to an expansion of public financing, future legislation could include additional restrictions on fundraising and limits on contributions by government contractors and grantees. If any campaign funds are raised in a given month, that information should be publicly disclosed through monthly reports. PAC communications through broadcast media and the internet should be required to have a verbal disclosure noting the name of the PAC and its top funder.

The Legislature should also revisit the permissible uses of campaign funds. Child care expenses are recognized in 24 states as bona fide campaign expenses.

To reduce the appearance of impropriety, campaign funds should not be used for charitable donations or scholarships. Donors can contribute to worthy causes directly. A provision that allows for $50,000 campaign loans from immediate family members also deserves additional scrutiny.

On the public records front, the CISC recommended legislation to increase public access to government records through limiting reproduction fees and waiving those fees when the public interest is served by disclosure. One measure, House Bill 719, made it to conference but did not pass. A similar bill was passed in 2022 but was vetoed by Gov. David Ige.

Good public policy is informed by good data, which can point to specific areas for improvement. Yet the collection of data by state and county agencies is haphazard. State and local policymakers should also act upon data to make needed changes. For example, a 2020 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts noting that Hawaii has the longest average term of probation in the nation has not prompted meaningful reform efforts.

Continual oversight of governmental operations is also needed. The monthly reports from the coordinator of the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission detail the increasingly grim situation in the state’s unified system of jails and prisons. Hawaii could also explore the use of oversight mechanisms like Inspectors General to improve government performance and accountability.

Rethinking The Basic Structure Of State Government

Two structural reforms that are often discussed, particularly in Civil Beat’s candidate questionnaires, are the adoption of term limits and a ballot initiative process. I voted against term limits on the CISC because of the already high turnover of state legislators from decade to decade, which Sen. Chris Lee noted in his CISC testimony. Term limits also increase the influence of lobbyists.

Many proposals suggested by the special standards of conduct commission made it through the Legislature and are on the governor’s desk. But reform is an ongoing process and more improvements are needed. (Screenshot/Ways and Means Committee/2023)

Similarly, an initiative process in the age of Citizens United will immediately become the purview of moneyed interests. Statutes will be written by those who have direct economic interests at stake. More than a few initiative election contests have exceeded $100 million in California in recent years, led by the over $400 million spent last year on one measure.

The compressed conference calendar and budget process this past session left many frustrated and bewildered. Time constraints are the product of a state constitution that mandates a short legislative calendar. Rep. Elle Cochran, who served on the Maui County Council, made a statement on the budget bill that highlighted the stark differences between state and county government policymaking.

The range of complex policy matters impacting 21st century Hawaii are not adequately met by a part-time legislature. Urgent areas of statewide public concern, including sea level rise, deserve full-time attention. A full-time legislature can also provide more direct oversight of executive departments through more frequent hearings.

A year-round legislature can make the lawmaking process more deliberative and can result in more concerted responses to the recommendations of its commissions and task forces. Last year I also served on the Department of Health’s Dual-Use of Cannabis Task Force, which issued a series of recommendations that have languished, including employment protections for medical cannabis patients.

Practicing Aspirational Politics

Those who are in positions of public trust should relish the opportunity to diligently work in a manner that exemplifies the highest aspirations of this state and its people. Rep. David Tarnas is among those legislative chairs who forthrightly outline his reasoning on a particular policy in committee and in the media. Hawaii’s civic life could use more assertive public candor of this kind.

Aspirational government can also counsel restraint apart from the letter of the law. For example, a governor that is considering whether to sign or veto legislation passed in the final weeks of the legislative session could unilaterally decide to refrain from holding fundraisers until final decisions are placed into the public record.

No law or regulation should be required to exercise enthusiasm or temperance in the ordinary conduct of public business.

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About the Author

Nikos Leverenz

Nikos Leverenz served on the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct and the Dual-Use Cannabis Task Force in 2022. He is the Grants and Advancement Manager at Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center and serves on the Community Advisory Board of Common Cause Hawaii.

Latest Comments (0)

Kudo's to Civil Beat and especially Nikos Laverenz for an insightful ideas article that shines the light as a guide to improve Hawaii State government. It makes sense to bring forth a change in the state constitution to have the state legislature be a full time elective office to be more effective. This article sheds light on what can be done to improve state government. The wheels of change move too slowly for state government in Hawaii. Positive changes are needed. Vote.

HoldTheLine · 4 months ago

Someone needs to start a PAC focused on voting instead of money. The PAC could enlist young voters and those who want to advance transparency and term limit reforms. The PAC would support candidates (including incumbents if they are willing) who support the PAC's goals. They would give their time, but not hard dollars, and drive a grass roots campaign against the money PACs. Focus first on ousting and replacing leadership who have not demonstrated a desire for reform. Legislators and those interested in running will realize that the power of the people is greater than money and back room dealing. Walk the walk!

ykseulb · 4 months ago

Thank you for your contribution to the Commission, and for helping to make democracy work.

JanetMason · 4 months ago

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