Now We Know: The Need For Legislative Reform Can Be A Matter Of Life And Death - 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, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

State leaders consistently neglected wildfire prevention, but that’s how things work — or don’t work — at the Hawaii State Capitol.

The Hawaii Legislature has consistently failed its constituents for so long that the abnormal seemingly became normal.

We’ve collectively rolled our eyes over the decades as state lawmakers played out their power struggles in private, often rewarding entrenched leaders with pork spending while delaying obviously needed legislation for many years and flat-out crushing efforts at serious reform.

Perhaps that will finally change with the sudden mass-realization that longstanding legislative dysfunction is not only frustrating, it can also be life-threatening. What has been dark political comedy is now just … dark.

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The State Capitol’s power brokers pretty much maintained the status quo last session even after public scandals inspired all the noise about the need for reform. The measures that required the most political will — public financing of elections and meaningful crackdowns on campaign contributions, to name a couple — died as they normally do.

To let things slide again next session would be to dishonor the victims of the Lahaina conflagration — not just the dead but those who lost homes and businesses and are only only now being allowed to pick through the debris.

Just as leadership promised corruption reform after two of its own lawmakers were convicted of taking bribes, the legislative powers that be are all over the Maui wildfires and efforts aimed at making sure nothing like this ever happens again. Already, the House of Representatives has announced the formation of six working groups to address the fact that many other urban areas are endangered by the parched brush they border.

But does it take an unspeakable tragedy to force the Legislature to do its job?

Hawaii has long underfunded its firefighting and fire prevention efforts on open lands throughout the islands — despite numerous studies pointing out the danger.

The House of Representatives wrapped up its business in May without approving an obviously needed bill to strengthen wildfire prevention efforts. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Last session, the full Senate and two House committees passed a measure to establish and fund a Community Fuels Reduction Project for wildfire prevention. Senate Bill 40 died without a hearing in the House Finance Committee.

This is standard operating procedure in the Hawaii Legislature. Committee chairs, and especially the leaders of the money committees, single-handedly kill bills every session. Often it happens with no public explanation in the final days, when legislative leaders conveniently run out of time to consider anything other than their own priorities.

Clearly, it’s time to stop running out of time.

Making The Legislature Actually Work

We agree with University of Hawaii political analyst Colin Moore, who proposed shortly after this year’s session concluded in typical chaos and dissension that the Legislature should meet regularly throughout the year instead of for just 60 in-session days from January to early May.

“Through the years, nearly every session has ended with legislators racing against the clock in a frenzy of 11th-hour negotiations,” Moore wrote in a commentary for Civil Beat, adding that “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.”

Hawaii’s state government is “highly centralized,” Moore noted, and “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.”

The legislative session’s conference committee period ended this year with what’s known as a “cattle call,” a frenzied exercise in which some measures survive but many more die. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

While the cost of shifting to a year-round Legislature is uncertain, Hawaii lawmakers are already paid more than some of their counterparts in states with longer sessions, Moore wrote, and many of their staff members already work full-time.

The change would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment, and a measure to give voters that opportunity cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last session. Senate Bill 149 was even amended to prohibit full-time legislators from holding other jobs, and to require the Legislature to operate within the confines of the Sunshine Law.

Imagine that. No more hiding behind ridiculous deadlines to hold bills hostage. And no more conducting the public’s business behind closed doors (legislators long ago exempted themselves from the open meeting law that applies to other government bodies, and their main justification is that the session is too short to accommodate it).

Not surprisingly, SB 149 died without a hearing when it reached the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

No Ignoring This Wakeup Call

It’s obvious by now that for true reforms to be achieved, they will have to be pushed through by a majority of rank-and-file lawmakers. Legislative leaders will cling to the current system of political gamesmanship played behind closed doors.

You know, the system that took 16 years after the legalization of medical marijuana to finally allow dispensaries so that patients had a legal place to buy their medicine.

The system that long delayed raising the minimum wage and allowing medically assisted suicide, even though both had overwhelming popular support.

The system that pushes the all-important budgeting process so late into the session that the money chairs can insert spending that never gets voted on.

A brush fire razed Lahaina in West Maui, Aug. 8. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahaina lies in ruins. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

And yes, the system that epically failed to adequately address wildfire prevention until one town burned down and others are threatened with a similar fate.

If that isn’t enough of a wakeup call, Hawaii is in a deep sleep indeed.

Those rank-and-file lawmakers will have to overcome their fear of political blowback from legislative leaders. And when it comes to a year-round Legislature subject to the Sunshine Law, there may be concerns about making such fundamental changes to the House and Senate.

But fundamental change is exactly what we require at this point. The majority of other state legislatures already operate under open meeting laws. Some make exceptions for party caucus meetings, an exemption that Hawaii might want to consider as well.

Open-minded lawmakers need to realize that allowing voters to decide this question is a measured, commonsense step. The unreasonable and downright radical option in this case would be to do nothing.

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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, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

What we have is systemic government failure. A broken down system of governance for special interests, funded by the people. The bar on public services has been set so low for so long, most don't even recognize how deep at the bottom we are. The majority of the public is lulled into believing that this is the standard, but simply visiting other states and countries leaves you scratching your head as to why we are light years behind. Why are services and infrastructure so bad, why does it take forever to get things done here and at triple the cost? Government is held hostage by unions unwilling to be productive and hog tie efficiency. They do get candidates elected though and keep the status quo, status. Knee jerk reactions are common place, while creativity and forward thinking are simply dreams. As much as we may all want more from government, IMO, I just don't see that kind of change ever happening, particularly when the blame game gets started.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

I think in the case of the fires, the Legislature is a perfect representation of the will of voters. Nobody cared about fires before Lahaina burned. Expending millions of dollars on fire prevention would have been wildly unpopular and considered a waste of money. Even if it was effective the public would never know the difference.

rs84 · 1 month ago

Let's name the names here. Scott Saiki, Scott Nakamura, De la cruz, Senate chair Ron...etc

Scotty_Poppins · 2 months ago

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