The Hawaii Legislature Is Broken - 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.

And the only way to fix it is for lawmakers to radically change the way they do business. If not, voters should act.

The words “cattle call” were used to describe the absurd, surreal finale of conference committee at the Hawaii State Capitol on April 28, but a better, more accurate description is “shit show.”

After a harried herd of lawmakers crammed into an at-capacity conference room to hastily ram through the few dozen bills the House and Senate money chairs deigned to agree on before an arbitrary 6 p.m. deadline that Friday, what remained was a lingering stench — along with the obvious takeaway that this is simply not the way to do the business of the people.

Not even the most important bill at the 2023 Hawaii Legislature — House Bill 300, funding the state budget for the next two years with $38 billion — made the cut. That business wasn’t settled until Thursday, the very last day of session. And it came after a dramatic, unprecedented yet much-needed rebellion led by Reps. Jeanne Kapela, Sonny Ganaden, Natalia Hussey-Burdick, Elle Cochran, Amy Perruso and Della Au Belatti.

The six made public their disgust with what they had just experienced. These were legislators themselves bravely saying what so many observers outside the Legislature have been saying for a very long time: that our legislative process is broken and is harming Hawaii’s people.

They decried multimillion-dollar funding cuts to higher and lower education and other programs at a time of a $2 billion surplus, the secretive insertion of a $200 million proviso — a “slush fund,” as Belatti called it — to let Gov. Josh Green do with as he wished, and the funding of unnecessary projects favored by certain lawmakers.

House leaders Greggor Ilagan, Scott Saiki and Nadine Nakamura speak to Amy Perusso, one of six Democrats to vote against the state budget. House Finance Chair Kyle Yamashita looks on. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“We gave only $10 million to Housing First, which is a proven, demonstrated program to help people transition out of homelessness while sneaking in almost 20 times that amount for a first responders campus in my district that nobody wants,” said Perruso, who represents Wahiawa with Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, the Senate Ways and Means Committee chair who did the “sneaking.”

Perruso continued: “The rationale behind a budget like this is that even in a year of surplus, we have to save for a rainy day. I can tell you unequivocally that for our constituents, for my constituents, it’s raining now and without a budget that prioritizes the working families of Hawaii. In a year of extraordinary surplus, the storm is going to get worse.”

The dissident six also lambasted the murky, closed-door process by which the budget was ultimately crafted so that it could end on time May 4.

Hussey-Burdick, a freshman from Oahu, said that the process that finalized the budget “lacked transparency and input from the members.” Instead of an open, participatory process, Hawaii’s Legislature has “an opaque, chaotic system where even the conferees didn’t get to see the final draft of the budget before they voted on it, and very few people had meaningful input along the way.”

Elle Cochran, a Maui representative also in her first term, agreed that the process was deeply flawed. A former member of the Maui County Council that must work under state Sunshine Law — unlike the Legislature, which exempted itself — she said, “coming here has really been hard for me to work without sunshine and it really just doesn’t sit well with me. Deep down, it’s just something that I cannot get used to.”

Cochran also said it was stressful to vet thousands of bills under a 60-day calendar, where “things get lost in the shuffle, fall through the cracks, don’t get to see the light of day, get its due diligence, due process. And I think this budget is the final product of that.”

Rep. Della Au Belatti said the state budget made her sick. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Maui legislator then asked her colleagues if they had the courage to “change the mindset, to change the process of how we do things here.” Lawmakers, she said, “can’t keep doing things the same way, expecting different results.”

Then came this kicker from Cochran regarding the corruptness that is bred in the dark, behind closed doors: “Today, two state legislators, one director of a department, director of the county and another county worker are doing time.”

It was Belatti, a former House Majority Leader, who damningly summed things up. The veteran legislator had never voted “no” on a budget but HB 300, she said, made her “physically sick to my stomach.”

The insertion of the $200 million proviso was especially upsetting to Belatti, who called it “a practice far worse than gut and replace” that the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional.

“It is widely known that this budget proviso was negotiated after the fact of the voting on this measure,” she said.

Two Republicans also voted against HB 300 while six other lawmakers voted in favor but with reservations, some of them strong ones. Out of a 51-member chamber and with two other members excused, that amounted to a stunning denunciation of leadership.

“On a personal note, this has been music to my ears,” said Rep. Gene Ward, a Republican who voted in favor of the budget. “You guys know I’ve been here a long time, but I’ve never heard the debate with such passion, such specificity — and this is what democracy is all about.”

Ward said he had expected every session since he was first elected over 30 years ago, would be like this one.

Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, Rep. Sam Kong and Sens. Jarrett Keahokalole and Lynn DeCoite gathered in the House chamber just before the Legislature adjourned to celebrate sine die. Will it be business as usual next year? Let’s hope not. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Will the Legislature change? It must.

During the interim before the next session in January it must work to curb the power of committee chairs — especially the WAM and House Finance Committee chairs — and to include committee members directly in decision making.

It must post testimony and proposed drafts well ahead of hearings. It must fundamentally overhaul the conference committee period that allows for shoddy, silent legislating that nullifies all the hard work that went into writing and hearing bills.

Deadlines are obviously being used intentionally by leadership to kill bills they don’t like. If time runs out during session before important business is finished, then extend session. It’s something the Legislature has done before.

The Legislature must again take up the dozens of sunshine bills that it let die this session, especially the ones prohibiting campaign contributions during session, and providing comprehensive public campaign funding so challengers have a fighting chance against incumbents who are beholden to special interests.

A recent local headline stated, “Chaos at the Capitol is part of lawmaking in Hawaii.” It is indeed, but it is also stupid, cruel, counterproductive and a raised middle finger to the public.

If entrenched lawmakers who smugly believe that they are untouchable refuse to change the way they have always done things, a majority of their colleagues must rise and vote to remove them. Voters will be watching, and waiting.

The lawmakers’ floor speeches criticizing the Legislature and especially the budget can be watched here beginning around the 1:12:30 mark and ending some 45 minutes later. Other lawmakers defended the budget, describing it as an imperfect document that could not satisfy everyone.

But we must not accept business as usual any longer and simply shrug our collective shoulders.

Read this next:

The Sunshine Blog: Take Our Post-Session Quiz. Are You A Capitol Insider Or A Confused Outsider?

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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)

Thank you, Civil Beat, for staying on top of this important issue. Could you do a follow up on ways that we could effect change? A constitutional convention? Somehow getting an initiative process in place? More out of the box solutions such as a shadow government and shadow voting to ratchet up the pressure on politicians?

Chillax · 6 months ago

I think a big step in the right direction might be for Perusso to primary Dela Cruz. Timed just right - around the time when the federal indictments come down; and with a strong voter registration drive and a small dollar contribution driven campaign, that might just do the trick. Devils in the details though, but I'd look into it.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 6 months ago

Every legislative session is filled with stories of bills written by lobbyists, bills dying in committee, and bills being rewritten without public review in conference committees. It's disgusting but the legislature is consistent in its corrupt practices.

Fred_Garvin · 6 months ago

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