The Legislature Is Addicted To Dysfunction. It’s Time For An Intervention - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Richard Wiens

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

It’s been 45 years since the last constitutional convention. Another one is desperately needed now.

Hawaii faced an intriguing challenge in January.

The Legislature has long been at the mercy of a handful of powerbrokers calling the shots behind closed doors about how to spend your money, but the hopes of its citizenry had been raised by an off-season focus on the need for more transparency and accountability.

Could this be the year that legislators cleaned up their act?

As the new session unfolded, a few small to mid-level reforms were accomplished. But it ended in a familiar crash with most of the game-changing proposals defeated and the controversial passage of a budget bill so rushed and convoluted that 200 million unencumbered dollars were thrown in at the last minute so the governor could maybe fix a few of the mistakes.

Now Hawaii faces a bigger challenge. Despite the attempts of a few to pretend this session wasn’t pretty much business as usual, public cynicism is widespread and well-justified.

It’s time to bring in some new fixers, because clearly legislators can’t overcome the challenge on their own.

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Some are already talking about the need for outside help:

Rep. Jeanne Kapela suggested that a panel similar to last year’s Foley Commission, created to propose reforms after the bribery convictions of two former legislators, be convened every two years.

Sen. Les Ihara proposed a citizens’ assembly that would make recommendations regarding elections, political campaigns, campaign finance and other government reforms.

But Rep. David Tarnas hit the bull’s-eye when he recently told Civil Beat, “I have always been a supporter of convening a constitutional convention every 10 years … Let’s start talking about that, having a constitutional convention.”

Bravo, Rep. Tarnas! Hawaii hasn’t had a constitutional convention for 45 years, and it’s never needed one more.

A “ConCon” allows elected delegates to propose amendments to the state constitution that voters would then decide on. It’s an opportunity to achieve reforms that the Legislature has been unwilling to make.

The existing constitution actually requires that voters be asked once a decade if they want to hold a ConCon, but the Legislature can put the question on the ballot anytime it wants.

To be clear, when he brought up ConCons to Civil Beat, Tarnas wasn’t proposing immediate action. He was saying a ConCon would be the proper venue in which to consider if legislative sessions should be lengthened. But then he added, “When the opportunity comes up I always tell people, ‘vote yes.’ And people say, ‘No, no, we don’t want to do that because it could open up a whole bunch of things in the constitution we don’t want to mess with.’”

Such was the case the last time around. A Civil Beat poll in December 2017 showed that 67% of voters surveyed supported holding a ConCon. But by the time voters actually decided the question in November 2018 they had been deluged by campaign ad scare tactics paid for by special interests heavily invested in maintaining the status quo. It lost with only 23.7% support.

The negative campaigning might be less effective now. After watching five more years of dysfunction at the Legislature, the voter mindset might be more like, “What have we got to lose?”

It’s ironic that opponents of a new constitutional convention harp on perceived threats to what was accomplished … at past constitutional conventions.

The 1978 constitutional convention was held in the “old federal building” in downtown Honolulu. (University of Hawaii/1978)

A ConCon in 1968 established the right to collective bargaining for public employee unions.

The 1978 ConCon was a breakthrough for Native Hawaiian rights and protecting the environment. It also set term limits for governor and lieutenant governor and required an annual balanced budget. As a bonus, a new generation of leaders emerged from it.

It’s difficult to imagine the elected delegates at a new ConCon trying to undo any of that. And remember, any constitutional amendments they propose would still go to voters who would have the final say.

The Legislature is notoriously reluctant to send its own proposed constitutional amendments to voters. Over the last five years, 194 have been introduced and not a single one got out of the Capitol alive.

The existing constitution actually requires that voters be asked once a decade if they want to hold a ConCon, but the Legislature can put the question on the ballot anytime it wants.

But what’s needed now doesn’t require a constitutional amendment, simply a question put to voters for consideration next year: “Shall there be a convention to propose a revision of or amendments to the Constitution?”

If legislators had the guts to ask that question before they have to and a majority of voters said yes, ConCon delegates would be elected at a subsequent election. Their convention would then be held five months or more before the next general election, when their proposals would be considered.

It’s a long process, so we might as well start it now instead of waiting until 2028, when the constitution would require voters to answer the ConCon question if it hasn’t been asked sooner.

This would not be a free-for-all citizen rebellion. In fact, the constitution gives legislators quite a bit of control over the proceedings:

The legislature shall provide for the number of delegates to the convention, the areas from which they shall be elected and the manner in which the convention shall convene. The legislature shall also provide for the necessary facilities and equipment for the convention. The convention shall have the same powers and privileges, as nearly as practicable, as provided for the convention of 1978.

What it would be is a breath of fresh air after decades of suffocating darkness in which the entrenched power of the few trumps the needs of the many.

Should the Legislature have to abide by the Sunshine Law instead of conducting much of the people’s business in secret?

Should the legislative session be lengthened to eliminate the yearly mad rush that results in the money chairs rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies while pushing through a spending plan that no one actually gets to see before voting on it?

Should there be term limits for legislators who are almost always reelected because they enjoy huge financial advantages over their challengers?

Should Hawaii join every other Western state in allowing statewide citizen ballot initiatives so that the people can act when the Legislature won’t?

It’s time for rest of us to get a crack at helping to answer these questions.

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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

Latest Comments (0)

Despite all the scare tactics that will be thrown against having a con-con, it is time. Our elected leaders are incapable of meaningful change, particularly when it puts themselves at risk of not being elected, or transparent. What we are doing now is not working. Money, not philosophy and ethics drive the outcome of elections. Those that are in, have more of the first and continue to remain in office for the benefit of the few, who in turn, expect to benefit. New ideas will only come from those outside the system because the system is not only broken, but will continue to focus on the needs of the few, not the many. Ultimately, the people will have more say in how government needs to run to serve them better.

wailani1961 · 3 months ago

There is no reason for Legislators to change. Why should they? The only thing they need to do is to be sure there is a "D" next to their name. When they do this they have a 95% chance of being elected. What needs to change is the voters tyo understand who they are voting for.

Whatarewedoing · 3 months ago

People want to live in Hawaii so badly that they are willing to tolerate its dysfunctional government. Price of paradise and all that.

fiftythree · 3 months ago

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