We’ll Keep The Heat On Hawaii's Lawmakers When They Reconvene - 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.

The 2024 session begins in three months. It’s another chance to improve the way the Legislature conducts the people’s business — and it’s an election year.

Maybe Hawaii legislative leaders think they’ll get a reprieve next session when it comes to cleaning up their act.

After all, the high-profile state commission that proposed all those legislative reforms in 2022 has been out of operation for almost a year now. The House kept its promise to hold public hearings on the proposals last session, and some even became law.

Time to move on to other issues, right? Especially now that the catastrophe of Lahaina has illustrated the growing danger of island wildfires.

Except the most significant proposed reforms were rejected. And the tragedy in West Maui might have been averted if the Legislature hadn’t been so dysfunctional for so long.

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So far, most signs point to another session of closed-door maneuverings, draconian rulings by committee chairs and a rush to sine die in which a lot of good legislation gets killed and a lot of spending decisions are made after the final floor votes.

Civil Beat isn’t about to turn the page on its Let the Sunshine In project that attempts to shine a light on what happens in the darkness — especially at the Capitol. Not when there is so much that still needs to change.

To that end, we have these plans:

  • We’ll produce a series of pre-session reports on the rules of the House and Senate and how rank-and-file legislators — not the entrenched powerbrokers — can immediately push much more forcefully for true reform. In many cases they already have the power, now they need the political will.
  • When the 2024 session convenes Jan. 17, we’ll again track reform proposals and the treatment they receive. We’ll also be watching the overall legislative operation to see what’s happening out in the open and behind closed doors. The idea isn’t to repeat our coverage of last session, but to take its lessons and offer fresh insight.
  • By the time the next session adjourns, the election season will have begun. In our candidate Q&As and other coverage, we’ll drill down on specifically what incumbents have done — and what those looking to replace them plan to do — to improve how the Legislature operates.

About Those Rules

It was perhaps the ultimate indicator of how hard it is to change the Legislature: The most innovative reform proposed by last year’s Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct was presumed to be dead on arrival.

The commission not only called for a Citizens’ Bill of Rights when it came to public interaction with the Legislature, it also proposed that those rights be enshrined in statute and be enforced by a new Office of the Public Advocate.

In testimony supporting House Bill 725, Commission Chairman Daniel Foley wrote, “The Commission offers this proposal as an aspirational starting point for how the public and legislators can best engage with each other in a respectful and transparent manner during the legislative process.”

In other written testimony, the measure was supported by the League of Women Voters and the state Democratic Party, as well as numerous individuals. The Attorney General’s Office, however, raised legal concerns about the proposed powers of a public advocate.

Commission member Robert Harris — the director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission — admitted the public advocate idea was a “straw proposal.” And former legislator Jim Shon, who crafted the Citizens’ Bill of Rights, said, “I do not expect that (the Legislature) would automatically put that into law.”

They were right. HB 725 was deferred without a vote after a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. Chair David Tarnas said some of the items in the proposed Bill of Rights would be addressed in changes to the House rules. Most were not.

Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Robert Harris conducts meeting. Left, Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Nikos Leverenz casts a vote.
When the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct proposed a Citizens’ Bill of Rights — to be enforced by a new Office of the Public Advocate — member Robert Harris, right, admitted it was a “straw proposal” unlikely to gain legislative approval. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The ill-fated Bill of Rights remains a roadmap to a more functional Legislature. Among its proposed requirements:

  • the right to provide oral testimony at any public hearing;
  • the right to publicly inspect written testimony no later than 24 hours after it is submitted;
  • the right to expect that all committee members have sufficient time to review bill drafts and proposed amendments before formally voting in committee and on the floor;
  • the right to expect that the original content of a bill is not suddenly and substantially changed without a public hearing on the new content;
  • the right to expect that legislators have sufficient opportunity for open and honest debate on the merits of a bill, rather than burdening measures with multiple committee referrals that inhibit such debate;
  • the right to expect that subject matter committees pass bills without deliberate defects, including defective dates, and with recommended appropriation amounts;
  • the right to expect that the money committees are not referred nonfiscal bills;
  • the right to expect that no bill should die in a conference committee due to the absence of a conference chair;
  • the right to open and transparent decision-making, including the right to hear the rationale for any decision made by a committee or committee chairperson, such as the deferral or amendment of a bill, in a public meeting; and
  • the right to easily inspect drafts of bills submitted to legislators for introduction or amendment, including the right to know who provided the draft if that person is a member of the public or a lobbyist.

‘A Different Culture Of Respect’

These “rights” aren’t the only proposed reforms that could be accomplished with simple rule changes. Among others that have been suggested are internal term limits for legislative leadership positions (including committee chairs) and requiring full committee votes to advance or kill a bill.

In addition, some existing rules don’t always seem to be followed, especially when it comes to establishing the estimated cost of a measure before the session’s 11th hour.

“The idea is to create a different culture of respect,” Shon said when the standards commission adopted the Bill of Rights proposal. “And in amending your rules, as new members come in, perhaps they would respect the rules.”

When state lawmakers adjourned the 2023 session, they left behind a lot of unfinished business when it comes to legislative reform. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Beyond potential rule changes, the Legislature may again consider reform bills that were rejected last session. All bills introduced in 2023 that were not passed carry over to 2024, the second year of the biennium.

Two of them would ask voters if they want to amend the state constitution to establish term limits for legislators or to convert the Legislature to full-time status. The latter could be a key to solving the current end-of-session rush that always seems to play into the hands of the money committee chairs.

A third would significantly expand public financing of campaigns to give challengers a fighting chance against well-heeled incumbents, perhaps leading to some much-needed new blood in the Legislature.

Buckle up. There’s much more to come — before, during and after the 2024 legislative session.

We’d like to hear what other possible reforms you think would improve how the Legislature conducts the public’s business. Send your ideas to sunshine@civilbeat.org.

Read this next:

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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)

Thank you! This is much needed information not so clearly reported in the Star-Advertiser or the sound-bite-focused TV news.

Thereisnotry · 1 month ago

Please...keep it up.I have been a photojournalist since high school. I have lived on the North Shore for 50 years and know that, because of your news agency, it is the first time, other than Laurie Carlson's, Honolulu Weekly, that we have had honest, deep RELEVANT reporting!Other papers were afraid to speak out and speak up!Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!Aloha.

RexDubiel · 1 month ago

I'm glad that CB will continue with the follow-up on the sunshine this year. One point - item 4 in the list of proposals is already in the Hawaii Constitution, chapter 3, section 12. Yet, that that was violated in 2022 on a bill that I was following. A change made without a public hearing then led to the Governor's veto of the bill. What a waste of legislative time, but thankful that the Governor caught a bill that would have violated constitutional rights. My preference for change would be to extend that legislative session to allow for more careful assessment of bills prior to hearings and more care to amend bills that are worthwhile to get passed.

jusbecuz · 1 month ago

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