Bills would expand definition of lobbying to include the executive branch and require legislators to reveal more financial relationships.

One of the more consequential laws to come out of the 2023 Hawaii Legislature, say advocates of greater government transparency and accountability, was legislation that requires all state legislators to include in financial disclosures the names of lobbyists with whom they have a relationship.

The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2025, would apply to spouses, business partners, employers and officers and directors of the employer. Also covered are lobbyist clients of legislators that paid the lawmaker at least $5,000.

If, hypothetically, a legislator ran a grocery store and a lobbyist paid a couple of bucks for a candy bar, that would not have to be disclosed. But if they spent $5,000? That would have to be reported.

The idea is to identify any potential conflicts of interest and to ensure greater public confidence in the integrity of legislators. House Bill 141 had the backing of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission and the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct — the latter also known as the Foley commission.

The Hawaii State Ethics Commission met Wednesday to consider a package of legislation for the 2024 Legislature. (Screenshot/2023)

Now, Robert Harris, the ethics commission executive director who also co-chaired the Foley commission, wants to revise the law so that legislators who work for large employers — like law firms — and who know “or reasonably should know” who is on a lobbying list should also disclose those clients that meet the $5,000 threshold.

Similar language had been part of HB 141 but was removed late in session because of concerns that legislators at big employers such as law firms could not possibly know every single lobbyist with ties to the company, nor all the dollar transactions involved.

The lobbying disclosure proposal was one of five tentatively approved by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission on Wednesday. Harris said there would be more proposals coming in December to finalize the commission’s legislative package ahead of the session that begins early next year.

Another proposal from the ethics commission would include some interactions with the executive branch under the state’s definition of lobbying.

Harris said the idea was raised in the 2023 session, but that the ethics commission realized that it needed to do “a fair amount” of consultation with various administrative agencies to make sure that any tweak of the lobbying definition would be pragmatic rather than disruptive.

How, for example, would a new definition apply to the hiring or appointment process for the executive branch, or written communications regarding procurement or contested case hearings?

Harris said the commission wants to be careful not to “step in to normal day to day interactions that most people would not consider lobbying.”

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But the purpose of the legislation, as the bill itself explains, is to promote government transparency by providing the public with additional information regarding lobbying at the administrative agency level.

The other three proposed bills call for revising gift disclosure reporting deadlines so they conform with the state’s July 1 to June 30 fiscal year, to raise the maximum administrative fines levied by the ethics commission from $1,000 to $5,000 so that they are comparable to other states, and to modernize the commission’s advice and investigation procedures in order to respond more nimbly to inquiries about the ethics code, other laws and rules.

Of the bills proposed by the ethics commission in the 2023 session, six became law. They include mandatory ethics training for lobbyists, the disclosure by lobbyists of what they are lobbying on, and another banning gifts from lobbyists that are prohibited under state ethics law.

Several other ethics commissions bills that did not pass were either made law through separate legislation — a new nepotism law for legislators and other state employees, for example — or by changes in legislative rules such as the online posting by the state House and Senate of their legislative allowances.

Harris said Wednesday he did not expect his office to revisit other ethics commission measures that did not pass in 2023.

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