Hawaii Needs A Continuous Legislative Session - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Colin Moore

Colin Moore is the chair of the School of Communication and Information at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and an associate professor at the Matsunaga Institute and UHERO.

The intermittent nature of the schedule hampers lawmakers’ ability to concentrate on their primary responsibilities.

Sixty working days. That’s the constitutionally mandated length of a regular session of the Hawaii Legislature.

As we learned from the chaos and confusion that closed out this year’s meeting, it simply isn’t enough time to govern a place as unique and complex as Hawaii.  

Although the controversy surrounding the budget received the most attention, House and Senate conferees waited until the last possible day to agree on language in roughly half the bills that received final votes.

Undoubtedly, some of this year’s disorganization was due to the inexperience of new members or first-time committee chairs. But through the years, nearly every session has ended with legislators racing against the clock in a frenzy of 11th-hour negotiations.

Some of this perennial confusion is surely by design. Deadlines can focus negotiations, but they also provide a helpful excuse to cover a multitude of sins. When good bills are killed or mistakes are made, “We ran out of time” is a convenient explanation. 

Perhaps even more troubling are the long-term consequences for local governance. The intermittent nature of the state’s legislative schedule hampers lawmakers’ ability to concentrate on their primary responsibilities: passing laws, developing public policies, and overseeing state agencies.  

The problem is particularly acute because our state government is so highly centralized. In Hawaii, the Legislature has sole authority over crucial funding, taxation, and policy decisions that are typically managed by multiple levels of local government in most states.

Many bills died during the so-called “cattle call” on the last day of the Hawaii Legislature this year, as lawmakers raced to meet a 6 p.m. deadline to reach agreement on measures. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

This is no way to run a government. Let’s bring some sanity to Hawaii’s policymaking process by moving to a continuous legislative session that would require the Legislature to meet throughout the year, rather than just from mid-January to early May.

We can make this change through a simple constitutional amendment, such as Senate Bill 149, which was introduced last session by Sens. Stanley Chang, Angus McKelvey, and Karl Rhoads. Although this bill didn’t get very far, it would have required the Legislature to convene at least once a month, just as the Honolulu City Council does today.

The solution may be straightforward, but it requires us to acknowledge that lawmaking should be a full-time job. Like most U.S. states, Hawaii restricts the duration of its legislative sessions to preserve its identity as a “citizen legislature.”

In theory, a short session allows lawmakers to continue their careers, manage businesses, and stay close to their constituents, while preventing the rise of entrenched politicians who are insulated from the public. This is surely a laudable goal — one with deep roots in American political culture — but it doesn’t reflect the reality of legislative work in Hawaii.

When it comes to understanding and evaluating state legislatures, it is important to recognize their remarkable diversity in rules, organization, and resources. One way to compare them is by their level of “professionalization.” Political scientists typically measure professionalization using the Squire Index, a metric that considers legislative salaries, resources for staff support, and the duration of legislative sessions.

As you might expect, California and New York are considered the most professionalized because their legislatures have long sessions, offer generous funding for office staff, and provide high salaries. By contrast, Wyoming and New Mexico have true citizen legislatures that meet for short periods, pay little to nothing, and provide modest staff support to their lawmakers. 

We can make this change through a simple constitutional amendment.

Using this metric, Hawaii turns out to have one of the nation’s most professionalized legislatures, ranking seventh on the index, significantly higher than one might expect for such a small state. Indeed, our legislators receive some of the nation’s most generous salaries and are provided with comparatively good staff support.  

Furthermore, most Hawaii lawmakers work year-round and relatively few have full-time careers outside the capitol. The most comprehensive survey of how lawmakers spend their time found that a majority of Hawaii legislators dedicate over 70% of their working hours to legislative tasks. When they’re not in session, policymakers are meeting with constituents and stakeholders about future bills, attending community events, and, of course, campaigning for reelection.

On balance, this is a good thing. Professional legislatures are almost always more effective institutions than their amateur peers.

Where Hawaii falls short is in the limited duration of its legislative session. Despite their relatively high salaries and generous staff resources, the total number of days our lawmakers spend in session is below the national average. In Arizona, for example, legislators receive significantly lower compensation and have access to limited staff assistance, but hold much longer legislative sessions.

Simply put, we are already paying for a fully professional legislature, so we should reap all the benefits.  Hawaii needs its elected officials to be part of the conversation year-round.

Listen To The Public

First, research shows that professional legislatures with longer sessions have a better sense of public sentiment and changes in public mood. Members spend more time talking to constituents and have the staff resources to examine community needs more carefully, giving them an accurate sense of public opinion on a variety of social and economic concerns.

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Second, legislatures that spend longer in session are more likely to craft policies that address the specific challenges of a state, rather than applying off-the-shelf policies from other states and national lobbying organizations. Hawaii is a unique place that requires custom solutions, but these take time to develop.

Third, longer sessions equip the legislature to be more effective in budget battles with the governor.

And, since they’re in session year-round, lawmakers are always there to oversee the bureaucracy. In Hawaii, where we have a particularly powerful governor and a large administrative state, this would be a welcome change.

Hawaii is a complex place with unique problems that requires its Legislature to be fully engaged in day-to-day challenges. We already provide lawmakers with the salary and staff resources to run as a year-round institution.

So, let’s get our money’s worth by asking them to convene every month, rather than cramming a year’s worth of work into 60 days of bedlam.

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About the Author

Colin Moore

Colin Moore is the chair of the School of Communication and Information at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and an associate professor at the Matsunaga Institute and UHERO.

Latest Comments (0)

As I understand it we have a session that is biennium. The session runs two years. What about just restructuring to reflect that? Why this mad rush in the hands of so few? Like many I’m very skeptical of YR session given we elect on popularity instead of meaningful traits and experiences.Term limits, initiative, and public financing deserve a shot.

MaxTax · 3 months ago

I don’t buy this excuse. We have leadership in the house that’s been there for 30 years. They have the ability to monitor how things are tracking and course correct if they wanted to, but my hunch is they know they benefit from the chaos.To add to the brainstorming: if we go full time (and offer more compensation and staff support), we should decrease the number of reps and senators. The number of citizens per rep is like 25k. My intuition tells me a better model would have it over 50k. We could consider something like 21 reps and 11 senators (as opposed to the 51 and 25 we have now). I like the bicameral system, but decrease the number.I believe we are in need of something similar to the Foley commission to get some new/novel ideals of how to make our legislature more efficient/effective and have their process/results be more transparent to the public. I believe it’s obfuscated by design to limit our ability to hold them accountable.

BeaterReader · 3 months ago

Extending the session over a longer period of time may help with some of the issues identified by the author. The current constitutional language already allows for this if the legislators wish to exercise the option. The state constitution simply limits the legislature to 60 days meaning 60 business days where a floor session is convened and does not include recess days or weekends and holidays. That’s why the session goes from mid-January to early May, which is more than 60 calendar days. Work can still happen on recess days such as committee hearings. So if enough legislators demand it, the session can unfold over many more months than the current structure. To some degree this is how the Honolulu City Council operates; they do not meet daily in session. Of course some thought should be given to a deadline for budget decisions to not affect the state budget which operates July 1 to June 30.

BusRider33 · 3 months ago

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