Chad Blair: When The Hawaii Legislature First Decided Public Access Was Important - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Public access at the State Capitol barely existed until 1989 when House Democrats succeeded in enacting major reforms. Their work is still a template for future reform.

Last month a group of good government groups called for major reforms in the way the Hawaii Legislature does business. Suggestions included ending the “cattle call” practice of last-minute decision-making during the conference committee period near session’s end.

And earlier this month the Sunshine Editorial Board (of which I am a member in good standing) promised to “keep the heat on” in highlighting the need for even more reforms in the 2024 session.

While a good many anti-corruption and accountability proposals passed this year and became law, among the more thoughtful measures that died was one that called for a Citizens’ Bill of Rights that proposed changes such as the right to publicly inspect written testimony no later than 24 hours after submittal.

What many readers of Civil Beat may not know is that some of the very same concerns raised after the rocky 2023 legislative session — when lots of good bills died very quickly and without good rationale — are similar to issues raised over access and transparency more than 30 years ago:

How can citizens get timely updates to bills? Can testimony be submitted in way that is actually considered by legislators? Why do bills have to die by arbitrary deadlines?

And why is there such limited public parking in the Capitol basement, which makes it all the more difficult to participate in the legislative process?

The 1989 legislation transformed the way the Capitol operated and dramatically improved public access. As lawmakers began to prepare for the new session beginning in January, a look at the accomplishments of that year can serve as a model of how real change can happen again — but only if there is the right leadership and will.

‘The Information Age’

Beginning in February 1989 Honolulu media began reporting on what was seen as an inability on the part of the Legislature to “meet demands” for legislative information and services.

“The media attributed this problem to mismanagement rather than malice on the part of the legislative leadership,” according to a report in April 1990 compiled by what was called the House Legislative Access Committee. (The full report is embedded below.) “Regardless of the attributed cause, the message from the public and press was clear: something had to be done to make the legislative process more efficient and open to public participation.”

From The Honolulu Advertiser, Nov. 13, 1989. (

The report on legislative access, which stated that the Legislature should “firmly launch itself on the road to democracy in the Information Age,” did not end up gathering dust on a shelf somewhere deep within Capitol offices. Thanks to the leadership of people like Carol Fukunaga and David Ige, who both served in the House at the time, the legislation passed and Gov. John Waihee signed in to law Act 331.

Among other things, it led to creating electronic access to legislative documents and other information via computers, setting up a “testimony drop-off box” in the turn-around area at the Capitol basement, establishing an internal 6 p.m. deadline for conference committee decision-making, and providing permanent staff support for individual legislators to improve service for the public.

Some of the changes were structural. Additional public parking in the basement parking lot was put in place, public pay telephones (remember those?) were made available for use, and better lighting and signage was installed. And public tours of the Capitol were launched.

Act 331 also led to the creation of what was initialy called the Public Service Room, located on the chamber level of the Capitol. Now called the Public Access Room, it’s on the much more accessible fourth floor and is an invaluable resource to the public and reporters like myself. In 1996, PAR became a division of the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.

From The Honolulu Advertiser, Aug. 14, 1989. (

Looking back at the ambitious legislative-access initiatives, Fukunaga explained to me that it was “the beginning of the internet age, way before anyone had heard of the ‘Information Superhighway’ that Vice President Al Gore popularized” during the Clinton-Gore administration (1993-2001). 

The work of Fukunaga, Ige and others involved visiting state legislatures in California, New York and Nevada as well as the U.S. Senate’s operations in Washington, D.C.

“At that time, Henry Giugni was the Senate Sergeant at Arms and we were impressed with the Senate’s congressional drafting and bill tracking operations,” Fukunaga recalled. 

How Bad Was It?

Ige, who was appointed to the House by Gov. George Ariyoshi in 1985, had not expected to make government and politics his career. He was working as an engineer for Hawaiian Tel, but he welcomed the part-time public servant role.

What he did not expect was just how antiquated operations at the Capitol were.

From the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Jan. 30, 1990. (

“I was just shocked,” he recalled. “We had personal computers at Hawaiian Tel, and everybody had their own work station. We were doing email and that kind of stuff. And when I went to the state there was nothing. There was barely any automation. If you were fortunate you had an IBM typewriter in your office.”

This was pre-internet, of course, but at the Capitol Ige’s colleagues had to stand in line to use word processors. One legislative session was so bad that Ige said the public couldn’t access copies of bills.

“And the Legislature ended that,” Ige said. “Then I guess the powers that be tried to control who had access to copies of the bills, and the general public did not get to see copies of bills until about three weeks after session ended.”

He continued: “I thought to myself, ‘How in the world can you do the public’s work?’ And if you’re an interested public citizen and you wanted to know what was going on, it was impossible to crack it.”

Ige said the public notice of hearings at the time was posted on House and Senate bulletin boards located on either side of the Capital Auditorium in the chamber level. During conference committee, when legislators often reconvene multiple times a day during the hectic waning hours of session, it was almost impossible for most people to keep up on the status of bills.

It was not uncommon for some lawmakers to find out too late that they were supposed to be in a certain conference room for a vote. The bulletin boards are still in use today, although most people in the Capitol and outside get their bill notifications electronically.

Fukunaga said that other efforts to expand legislative access included the work of Ige and then-state Sen. Mike McCartney to give student leaders “a seat at the table” during legislative discussions. The “active stakeholders,” as Fukunaga called them, included Jill Tokuda, then a student member of the Board of Education and now a U.S. representative.

State Rep. Les Ihara also led efforts to set up mini-terminals for school libraries. The work, said Fukunaga, “led us to envision that technology tools at the school level would help to broaden our legislative reach with student participants.”

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One more innovation of note from Act 331: A videotex (essentially, an interactive video monitor) tutorial program was implemented. It included information on individual legislators, committee memberships, the legislative timetable, the legislative process and Capitol logistical information. 

Act 331 appropriated several million dollars for the access work, but the implementation later required much more spending by the House and Senate.

Yesterday And Today

Legislative access was also improved by other circumstances: the temporary relocation for four years of the entire Legislature to the nearby State Office Tower for asbestos.

“We were going to shut down the Capitol and we were going to have everybody in that building,” said Ige. “The process was terrible to begin with, but we anticipated that it would be 10 times worse when we were in the State Office Tower. And it was true.”

The Legislature moved back to the Capitol for the 1996 session.

Fukunaga is today a state senator, having previously served in both houses as well as on the Honolulu City Council. Ihara is in the state Senate today, too. Ige was eventually elected to the Senate and then served as governor for two terms. McCartney was Ige’s first chief of staff and later director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

From The Honolulu Advertiser, Jan. 30, 1990. (

Act 331 did not solve all the problems at the Legislature, and some that it did solve reemerged. The Capitol parking lot is back to being overcrowded at times, and dark, for example, although live-streaming of hearings and briefings is a major improvement in terms of access. The House report of 1990 recommended in the long term improving the snack shop and cafeteria facilities. In fact, getting good food at the Capitol today can only be obtained by leaving it.

But the lessons from 1989 serve as a reminder that reform is not a one-off but never ending. And as technology continues to evolve, from today’s videoconferencing to tomorrow’s artificial intelligence, there will be more opportunities to improve public access.

One constant will remain, however, as stated in that act of 34 years ago: “Opening up government processes to public scrutiny and participation is the most viable and reasonable method of protecting democracy and the public interest.”

Read this next:

Hawaii Ethics Commission Steps Up Training Of Government Employees

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

Access to the building is another matter. That's declined since the 1970s.

JohnSwindle · 1 month ago

I worked at the Legislature as session staff for a junior representative in 1986 and 1987. Session staff was largely hired off the street, knew nothing about the issues, and had time for little beyond filing the mountains of legislation and committee reports the Legislature generated each day. And, of course, little continuity in staffing from year to year. Much later, I worked on Capitol Hill as a staff attorney for a Senate committee. It is impossible for outsiders to realize how critical it is to have legislative staff that can stick around long enough to actually learn their subject matter and how the process works. Most leave Congress after three years or so to earn big bucks in the private sector, but a lot of really smart people stay with the job or move elsewhere in government. One of the attorneys I worked with in 2001-2005 was head of the Bureau of Reclamation under Obama and is now head of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Carl_Christensen · 1 month ago

When many people are too busy working and parenting when is time to be watchdog on their politicians or the process? Even apathy in voting, not even half make to the polls. Seems our government is more in the pocket of rich lobby special interests and corporations then representing whats good for the people.

Chris · 1 month ago

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