Rep. Elle Cochran: Bills Entered 'Twilight Zone' As Legislators Rushed To Adjourn - Honolulu Civil Beat

Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 738 donors, we've raised $108,000 so far!


Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 738 donors, we've raised $108,000 so far!


About the Author

Richard Wiens

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

Nothing she saw during eight years of open government on the Maui County Council prepared her for her first chaotic session at the Capitol.

In an unusual display of dissension on the House floor, Rep. Elle Cochran was one of a handful of Democratic representatives who not only voted against the state budget bill on the final day of the legislative session, but criticized the disjointed and often secretive process that produced it.

Back home on Maui, she’s taken on the “mission” of educating people about the dysfunction of a Legislature unbound by the Sunshine Law that applied to the County Council she served on for eight years. In an interview with Civl Beat edited for length and clarity, she talks about the surprises that awaited her as a freshman legislator.

Legislators exempted themselves when they passed the Sunshine Law that requires other government bodies to conduct the people’s business in public. In your case that seems to have made for a rocky transition from former Maui County Council member to state representative.

Without Sunshine, everything’s done literally behind closed doors. During some of the House floor sessions, the longest thing we did was the roll call. Then off to a caucus meeting. That’s what it’s about.

And with Sunshine, everything is out in the open. I like that because you are held accountable. Versus, you can just say and do whatever behind closed doors and no one can hold you accountable because they don’t even know who to hold accountable.

Maybe working under Sunshine for eight years and then coming there, not having it really threw me off. I just didn’t express myself at first. But it’s no news to anyone there that I haven’t been quite happy.

  • A Special Commentary Project

How did it play out initially, at the committee level?

I’m a committee member for Finance. I’m also the vice chair for Energy and Environmental Protection. Nicole Lowen’s the chair. And my role, I’m told, is to just support whatever the chair wants.

Obviously if there’s something that’s really against your philosophy on life, you can vote no. But typically you follow the chair. I’m just being told how we’re voting and what we’re voting on and when we’re voting. People already have their minds made up. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just going through the motions.

I knew I didn’t have to think twice about not supporting that budget. I had questions all along the way and nobody was going to answer me.

Rep. Elle Cochran

I’m also a committee member of Agriculture and Food Systems, so I really thought Speaker (Scott) Saiki was very gracious from Day One. He picked a very nice corner office for me, which I was like, wow, it’s a hundred times bigger than a County Council office. 

I thought he must have done his homework to see that I was infrastructure and environmental management chair for eight years on the county level — I’ve been very active in our agriculture community.

I expressed my gratefulness to him and I did say, thank you for everything. My office, the committees I’m on, I’m very excited. And he goes, “Well, I don’t look at you as a freshman, really.” And I’m like, oh, well, thank you, but I’m new to this process.

And now I see it is literally night and day. I mean, it’s two different animals. And the budget process really took me aback, too.

Talk more about how you saw the budget process play out this session.

Budget committees work in the early days of the Legislature, in fact, before opening day. So we’re already there, settling in.

And all the new administration’s department heads are not confirmed yet. But they come down to the Finance Committee members and share their budgets, but really what they’re sharing is the previous governor’s budget.

Then as time progresses, obviously now Gov. Green has come up with his version and what gets submitted, but we don’t really go through his version line by line.

Rep. Elle Cochran and Rep. Andrew Garrett listen as county mayors and their representatives make funding requests to the Legislature’s money committees in January. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

And if you have questions, the Finance chair will always say, “Well, we hear your concerns. But let’s just move this along for further discussion.” That’s the template response. “Let’s just move it along for further discussion.”

Every single thing that any department gave a dollar amount on was just taken out to zero. And it was understood that the numbers would be hashed out during conference committee.

So here we have a budget on the final conference day, Friday, where people are still not in agreement on numbers. I heard it twice or so that the Senate went, “Oh, House, your numbers are lower and we’ll go with your numbers then.” And that’s how it was. And then we voted on a budget and it’s like too many moving parts that just don’t match up.

So during conference committee on the budget, the conferees are not getting any say in the discussion?

We had a list and it was just, the name of the organization or department. And here’s the dollar amount. And it was just a very basic, superficial listing. I brought my computer, I thought we’re going to go line by line.

That’s what I’m used to as a council member. We literally know where every single penny is going. And this just was not like that.

I’ve been told I’m a wild card. They don’t know what to expect from me.

I kept asking my office, do we not get some type of line item breakdown? I have an office manager who’s been there a long time. He goes, “I’ve never seen any other type of breakdown than that.” I’m like, well, this just isn’t enough for me.

That’s the money that’s going to make this whole state tick and go around. I want to know how we’re spending the money and where and how it got there and everything else. If I’m signing my name to this, I need to know that. And I never got any of that.

I think in the end there were unintended consequences, which instigated the $200 million pot of money that the governor now can use at his discretion.

How does that work? Who was in that room? I’m a Finance Committee member and wouldn’t that be something the committee members would be abreast of and be a part of? Besides, the budget has been voted on (by the conference committee). How can you amend it with no one else around for $200 million? 

And how is the governor going to prioritize? Who gets the money the next morning? There’s just so many things that are so wrong with this process.

Then we did the big vote on the floor where I voted no. I knew I didn’t have to think twice about not supporting that budget. I had questions all along the way and nobody was going to answer me.

I just want to simply see the line items. Supposedly it’s forthcoming, but I don’t know. Is it maybe a couple of months from now everyone’s going to forget to ask for it? I don’t know. I’m not going to stop asking. I want to see it. And I don’t care if you give me 10,000 pages, I want it all. I should have the right, the public has the right.

Beyond the budget bill, the money chairs play an oversized role in many other measures as well during conference committee, right?

That’s why you had so many disgruntled chairs, because with the time crunch and I think with the Finance chair his first time in trying to keep everything together, he wasn’t even able to respond back to the chairs of the respective committees at the final hour. Because they were trying to get their stuff heard. It was in conference already and had no appropriations attached.

So many of these bills, you have to have someone from Finance and (Senate) Ways and Means show up. And if one or the other is not there at that table, it dies just like that.

That happened that night (at the end of the conference committee period), the cattle call. I was sitting at that table watching this, thinking, what “Twilight Zone” am I in right now?

The fate of many measures was decided during the “cattle call” on the last day of conference committee. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

One person sitting there for one item votes, then gets up and walks out the door. So that next item just died on the spot. That person’s right outside the door. They just walked out. Go call that person back. And I was like, whoa, this is a crazy, crazy process.

After all of the work that went into a bill, it had to go through so many committee hearings and then have to cross over to a whole other body, the House and the Senate. Then they come back and it’s like, oh my God, now you’re just going to sit here and do this cattle call and have things just die because there’s no time? And is that by design?

That’s even disgusting to call it that. We’re not cattle. What, are you just herding us around?

Did you ever sort of get taken to the principal’s office for not behaving?

Never. No one will approach me and talk to me. I want the leaders to know where I come from and what I feel. I want to know what they are thinking. They don’t want to even touch me with a 10-foot pole. I’ve been told I’m a wild card. They don’t know what to expect from me.

Well, here’s what you can expect from me. I’m going to be open and transparent. I’m going to tell it like it is. And I need the public to understand what the process is.

Just during my first couple of days back home on Maui, people are going, ‘What? Whoa, no way. Really?’ I’m like, yeah, that is how it works.

It seems like you were surprised by the legislative experience, but you must have been warned.

Well, not really. I have not heard my fellow representatives or senators of Maui County, any of them, say what I’m saying.

They’ve never worked under the Sunshine Law, so they can’t speak to firsthand experience with that like I can. So they’ve only experienced how the state does it. I think because I can compare and contrast, I have something to share, because there’s a stark, glaring difference.

I can’t get used to not working under Sunshine, and I’m not going to.

What do you think it would take to make the Legislature more open?

The people. It’s not going to start from inside. I’m only one voice out of the 51 people, so I’m not the majority. I can’t be the one from inside changing this up.

That’s why my mission during the interim is to educate every single person about my experience and how I see what I’m seeing and compare and contrast to what the state mandates upon the county councils with the Sunshine Law that they don’t impose upon themselves.

Just during my first couple of days back home on Maui, people are going, “What? Whoa, no way. Really?” I’m like, yeah, that is how it works. And people have no clue. And I’m talking to people who have been in their nonprofits for decades. They’ve been trying to push the bills through.

When you say that the change has to come from outside, do you mean in terms of voters electing more reform-minded legislators?

That too. But I think even the people who are there, the sitting members, need to get the pressure of the voice of the people out here. Make them do the right thing. To hear from their constituents that they represent and not your special interests.

That’s what I mean by the outside. If we’re going to do any changes this next session, that part has to happen. Then, hopefully others will step up to the plate and want to run, you know, and change it that way. But I think right here and now things can happen by the public understanding that their voice really isn’t infused into the process.

Is there any chance of some significant reforms next session just because enough legislators want to change the way it’s working, maybe even change the leadership?

Cochran left the Maui County Council in 2018 to run unsuccessfully for mayor. (Dean Warner/2018)

I can’t say for certain it’s going to happen, but I think that’s definitely a possibility. The budget dialogue on the floor, I heard, was very different. I think some people stood their ground with the little dissension.

I think it was inspiring. We need to get energized again. I’m excited to see if we can change this. I think something moved and something got started over there to where I feel like there’s some good energy in that sense, where some changes can happen.

So maybe this interim, legislators will hear from their constituents and rethink things and maybe they’ll change and say, “Yeah, we do need to reform. Yes, we do need to do things differently.”

I just know what my mission is right now, to get out and educate the community about my experience and what I know of the process because I’ve been in it.

I spoke to three high school classes yesterday. They’re going to be voters soon.

Read this next:

Denby Fawcett: With So Much Rage In Everyday Life Do We Want People Armed In Public?

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)

Oh My, This legislature is so off base, it is run in a pathetic way. Drastic changes need to be made and there has to be a statewide movement to 'take back the ledge" from the powers that be. Truly this level of compromise exists in all aspects of our govt though the HI ledge seems to have a very high bar of compromised behaviors. Our state is ripe for radical change. Ask, "How can I make a difference? How can I show up? And, Who are my allies to join with?" It takes courage to stand up to these powers that be. Maybe Ms. Cochran can sound a loud enough bell and paint the picture clear enough to get people involved!

dennism · 6 months ago

I'm noticing that all the comments so far are in support of Ms Cochran and the "sunshine" she has shed on the State legislative process. (I respected every one of the comments and replies.) But right now she is just one against the establishment. She has the makings of a great leader but leaders need a group of like thinkers to develope a change in the legislative mind set. Sort of like the Wave. One person or a group start the wave but unless others take it up and contribute to its continuance it soon dies out.Ms Cochran has started the wave. It is up to us as voting citizens to ensure that her beginings don't die out due to public indifference. While we voters can't enact a change directly we do elect those that can. If enough of us actively pressed our representatives and senators for accountability and a sunshine law that included them I believe the State would run far better for the people and for our State employees.Thank you Ms Cochran for lifting the veil on the real workings of the State legislature.

Roxie · 6 months ago

We definitely need more politicians like this inspiring lady.

Scotty_Poppins · 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.