Why Won't Hawaii Lawmakers Let The Public Vote On Important Policy Questions? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

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

From serious measures to trial balloons, none is coming soon to a ballot near you.

If your favorite sports team finished the season with a record of zero wins and 41 losses, would you keep rooting for it?

And what if over the last five years, its record was zero wins and 194 losses. Time to lose hope?

Not if you’re a Hawaii state legislator, apparently. Every session, lawmakers propose dozens of amendments to the state constitution. And every session since 2018, they all fail, often getting no attention other than a committee referral.

Because if there’s one thing Hawaii legislators like better than proposing constitutional amendments, it’s making sure the public doesn’t get a chance to vote on them.

Among the 41 proposals shot down this past session were five asking voters if they wanted to impose term limits on legislators. None made it out of its first committee, and only one got a public hearing — after which it was immediately squashed by the chair.

You might have expected more serious consideration of one of the highest-profile reform proposals to emerge after public officials were ensnared in a series of scandals recently.

Plenty of proposed constitutional amendments are cooked up by the Legislature every session at the Capitol, but they never seem to advance to the ballot for voters’ consideration. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

But despite all those constitutional amendments proposed by legislators — more than 400 in the last decade —the fact is it’s very difficult to change the state constitution. Before one can even get on the ballot, it needs two-third’s approval of both the Senate and House, or majority approval of both chambers in consecutive sessions.

Legislators know this, and some propose amendments to score political points safe in the knowledge that the measures will go nowhere.

This is especially galling in Hawaii, the only state in the Western U.S. where citizens have no right to propose their own constitutional amendments through a statewide initiative process. And the only form of ballot measure permitted in Hawaii are legislatively referred constitutional amendments.

One of this year’s proposed amendments would have given voters the chance to change that, by the way. It went nowhere.

Other proposed constitutional amendments rejected by the Legislature this past session would have asked voters to:

  • Establish a continuous Legislature required to convene at least once a month. Many reformers say lengthening the session would allow the imposition of the Sunshine Law forcing lawmakers to conduct their business in public. The measure died in its second committee.

A full list of the measures is on the Legislature’s website.

  • A Special Commentary Project

Amendments That Made The Ballot

The last time lawmakers approved a proposed constitutional amendment was in 2018. But before citizens could even vote on whether to grant the Legislature the power to impose property taxes to support public education, the measure was invalidated by the state Supreme Court due to unclear ballot language.

And the last time voters actually approved a constitutional amendment was in 2016. It allows legislators to use excess general fund revenues to make pre-payments on general obligation bond debts or put the money toward health and retirement benefits for public employees.

In 2014, voters were faced with four proposed constitutional amendments and passed two of them, one to make the names of judicial nominees public and another to allow public revenue bonds for agriculture and dam projects.

It was actually easier for constitutional amendments to gain passage before a Supreme Court ruling in 1997.

The court undid previous state election policy when it decided that “yes” votes must not only outnumber “no” votes but all the other ballots cast, including people who left the question blank or mistakenly voted both “yes” and “no.”

There is no shortage of opponents when voters consider calling a constitutional convention to shake things up at the Capitol. (Caleb Hartsfield/Civil Beat/2016)

The 1997 ruling overturned apparent voter approval (the “yes” votes had slightly outnumbered “no” votes) of a 1996 measure calling for a constitutional convention.

ConCons offer the only opportunity in Hawaii for non-legislators to propose constitutional amendments directly to the electorate. The last one in 1978 had a strong focus on Native Hawaiian rights, including the creation of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the guaranteed funding of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

State law requires that voters be given the opportunity at least once a decade to call for a ConCon. They rejected the opportunity in 2018 after a well-financed opposition campaign by practically everyone who currently wields power in the islands.

“I was amazed because it was this coalition of the left and the right who were were totally against this,” recalled Colin Moore, a political science professor affiliated with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and the Matsunaga Institute of Peace at UH.

There’s a lot of people who are perfectly happy with the constitution.

Colin Moore

The opposition included many Native Hawaiian interests who feared losing some of the gains made in 1978, which was “kind of a unique moment,” Moore said.

“I don’t know if we’ll get back there,” Moore said of the prospects for another ConCon. “And I also think that there’s a lot of people who are perfectly happy with the constitution.”

But there are also a lot of people who are perfectly unhappy with state government these days, especially after a session when many proposed reforms were shot down behind closed doors.

Another of this year’s proposed constitutional amendments would have created a mini-ConCon of sorts. The Citizens Assembly could have proposed to the Legislature constitutional and statutory revisions or amendments to the laws governing elections, political campaigns, campaign finance, ethics, referendum, reapportionment, legislative process and public access to information.

No surprise: It died without benefit of a public hearing.

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

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

Latest Comments (0)

The real reason that answers the question is hidden in the article ----- "Before one can even get on the ballot, it needs two-third’s approval of both the Senate and House, or majority approval of both chambers in consecutive sessions."When is the last time in recent history have the Senate and House agreed on anything?

Silversword · 6 months ago

Our problem is the "Good Enough" mentality in Hawaii, in governance and all aspects of our lives. Perhaps its the passive nature of the races that make up the melting pot that our local comedians tease out all the time. But our Government in Hawaii? This:Tsunami today? No! Good Enough!Sun came out today? Yes! Good Enough!Water safe to drink? Maybe. Good Enough!Costco new sale book started yet? Yes! Good Enough!Did we listen to any voters today? No. Good Enough!

karangurallaz · 6 months ago

How can one endure the tropical heat with no Trader Joe’s or IKEA but worst all - no statewide initiative. The horror, the horror. The legislature and the public at large have not been rallied so far by CB’s hectoring. You’re acting as advocates so use the petition provision in the Rules of the House of Representatives ((Rule 46) to put forward your goals. See what support you or do or not have.It may be that people are eager to import the practices of the Western states. It may not.

JimWright · 6 months ago

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