About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister.

Danny holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Administration from UT San Antonio, 2001; a Master of Arts in  Political Science (concentration International Organizations) and minor in Humanities from Texas State University, 2002.

He received his Doctor of Theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary in 2013 and Doctor of Ministry in 2014.

Danny received his Ordination from United Fellowship of Christ Ministries International, (Non-Denominational Christian), in 2002.

The legislative process can be intimidating, but with the right sponsor and some hard work anyone with a really good idea can effect change in the state.

What would you do if you could pass a new law or fund a new idea in Hawaii?

This is a question that high school seniors taking a civics course often have to ponder, but for most of us it remains wishful thinking, just like asking what we would do if we won the lottery.

But what if I told you that the legislative process is easier than most people think, and almost every positive idea for reform that you might have could easily become a law just a few months from now?

Believe it or not, as the Hawaii Legislature prepares for its upcoming 2024 session, if you take initiative now and commit to seeing a good idea through from beginning to end, your idea could become law in just a few months from now.

Demystifying The Legislative Process

The way laws are made is often compared to the process of making sausage. People often take that as a negative deterrent, but I see it as an art. As someone who likes to cook as a hobby, I can tell you that everything worth putting on the table requires a good recipe, the right ingredients, and the proper tools.

For Danny’s 2024 bill passing recipe, you’re going to need the following ingredients:

1. A good idea that you understand competently and can explain in simple, easy terms to anyone — especially those who have no familiarity with the concept.

2. A price tag for how much your idea will cost to implement and where that money will come from.

3. At least one hour of free time per week that can be committed to making phone calls, writing testimonies, or making in-person visits at the State Capitol.

4. At least 20 likeminded people in the community who support your idea (more on this later).

5. Patience and the ability to be flexible.

Getting Ready

December is an important month, because right around now, legislators are submitting ideas to their research and drafting teams — ideas that they want turned into a bill or resolution. In case you’re not familiar with the process, a bill is a measure that can become a law, if it passes the legislature and is signed by the governor. A resolution is a statement of legislative intent or purpose, but is not legally binding.

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Most citizens are completely reactive to this process, only supporting or opposing bills that they happen to hear reported on the news. What is not commonly known is that anyone can visit their elected officials before session (click here to find out who that is), and request a bill or resolution be authored and introduced on their behalf. Since this drafting takes at least several days or even weeks to complete, now is the best time to do this if you haven’t asked for something already.

Generally, I like to ask the legislator who sits as chair of the standing subject matter committee that I think would have jurisdiction over the issue to introduce it for me. Example, if it has to do tourism, talk to the Senate or House (or both) tourism chairs. If this involves product regulation we’ll talk to commerce and consumer protection chairs; if this is a legal matter we’ll take it to judiciary chairs, and so on.

The best way to meet a chair is to call their office and request a one-on-one appointment. You can also do a walk-in, if you have free time to try multiple times. The key here is one-on-one, because you’re more likely to be let through the door as an individual talking casually than a large group of people wearing matching advocacy shirts demanding to see the legislator. 

During that meeting, be polite, make no accusations or offensive statements, and tell them your idea. If you’ve done your homework, you may already have the precise language, which they’ll love because it means less drafting work on their end. 

Under the best-case scenario, a chair will agree with you and enthusiastically introduce it. Worst-case scenario they’ll say no, but if they say no, I ask them if they’d be willing to hear it if another legislator were to introduce it. If that answer is yes, then you’re still in business.

Ask for two identical drafts of the bill: A House bill (especially if this involves money) and a Senate bill, to be simultaneously routed and introduced in both chambers. You’ll want two bills for survival purposes, because how a bill is supported or opposed in one chamber can give you a strategy for keeping it in motion.

December is a good time to take an idea to your favorite lawmaker to have it drafted so it can be introduced as a bill or resolution. The legislative session starts Jan. 17. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

From this point forward, your greatest asset will be the ability to leverage free time to see your idea through. Most legislators will propose almost any idea, even as a devil’s advocate, but won’t commit staff time unless it’s a personal agenda. 

That’s fine by me, because I offer to write the bill draft, and gather all the people necessary to testify in support of it or talk to the news about it (hence, the 20 supporters from earlier). I’m even bold enough to take it a step further and volunteer to collect signatures from legislators for it. 

This serves two purposes. First, I get to read the actual draft they plan to submit, and if it doesn’t work, I ask for a re-draft. Second, I get to give the bill a life of its own just by steering who introduces or sponsors it. If the legislators don’t feel comfortable with you doing this, give them a slip of paper to be clipped to the bill routing folder that specifies the precise order and offices you want to sign the bill.

Pro-Tip: Most legislators don’t actually read bills shared with them for signature pre-session. Many of them only read the signature page to know if it’s worth their time. Knowing this, when I was a committee clerk, regardless of what the bill was, I would collect signatures in the following order: Chair; Speaker of the House; Majority Leader; Finance Chair; Judiciary Chair; then everyone else. (If you’re doing this on the Senate side, you’ll need their equivalents.)

I say “everyone else” because if you can get those signatures, the fear of missing out sets in and tons of legislators start to sign it. When the bill actually gets filed during session, you’ll now have on the Bill Status page online a measure that everyone begins to wonder how did it get so many signatures, sparking interest that you can leverage later.

Consistency Is Key

So you’ve made it this far, and your bill is introduced. The first thing you need to do is track the life of that bill from beginning to end by signing up for hearing alerts at the Capitol website. Assuming you succeeded in getting the chair of a subject matter committee to introduce a bill for you, they’ll likely schedule the bill for a hearing. If not, you’ll need to find out which chair is in charge of that bill, and tell them to schedule it as quickly as possible.

One myth is that some bills don’t get heard because legislators don’t like the content. If only that were always true! More often than not, chairs and their clerks don’t have time to know what’s in every bill, and may not schedule a bill because they didn’t even see it. (No, really.)

Find out what deadline applies to your bill and call the committee(s) that have to hear it, until they get heard. Ask your 20 supporters to do the same, so it creates the sense that many people want the bill heard. Once the bill gets scheduled for a hearing, get all of your people to submit testimony in support early. Ideally, they should attend in-person so they can fill up the committee hearing room, showing the legislators just how many people you have on your side.

Pro-Tip: I like to monitor who testifies for bills peripheral in scope or similar in subject, because that gives me a list of people that I can potentially recruit to support my idea. Many people are not aware that many national organizations have delegated to local designees the call on what bills they should support or oppose, so if you find someone like that, you can offer to testify in support of their ideas if they offer to testify or endorse yours.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’ll likely get your bill passed out of its first committee. What I like to do at this step is get all my supporters to mail handwritten thank you cards to the chair and vice chair (not emails; handwritten notes, because those always get read). Few people actually do this — show gratitude — so when you do, it usually leaves a good impression.

One myth is that some bills don’t get heard because legislators don’t like the content. If only that were always true!

Every bill passed out of committee goes to the floor for a vote by the full membership of the chamber it is in. You’ll need to check the House or Senate orders-of-the-day to find out when these occur. I like to write multiple 30-second or less floor speeches in support of a bill that I then give to multiple legislators before a floor vote. Some say yes, some say no, some forget, but if enough people agree to speak, it creates another FOMO dynamic, which makes it seem like a bill is more important than it really is. 

In most cases, bills will survive floor votes unless they are super controversial or just awful ideas, but, if you’ve done your homework up till now, your bill will pass with plenty of enthusiastic “yes” votes and speeches in support.

Clearing Finance Or Ways And Means Committee

Depending on whether or not your bill has fiscal implications or unique procedural requirements, you’ll have to clear the House Finance and/or Senate Ways and Means committees. This one is tough. Since House Finance in particular gets referred so many bills, a subject matter committee chair typically sends a short list of bills they deem as a top priority. If your bill is not included on that list, it could still be heard, but it is less likely. This is why advance homework where you’ve talked to the chairs is crucial.

If your bill does get scheduled, you’ll need to be able to justify the math behind it. That means you’ll need to know how much it costs, why we should spend that money, and most importantly, where the money for that will come from. If your answer is “we’ll just have to find a way to pay for it” then your chances of making it beyond this point become extremely slim.

Doing it Again In The Next Chamber, And Conference

Once you’ve cleared all committees and floor votes in one chamber, you’ll have to repeat the process again as the bill crosses over to the next chamber (House to Senate; or Senate to House). At this point, what started out as a handful of people supporting an issue will have increased to much more, because you’ll have built up new allies both in the public and, in some cases, even in other government agencies.

Legislature gallery before death with aid bill with supporters in yellow and folks opposing in blue at the Capitol.
If you want your proposal to move through successfully, you should line up at least 20 supporters who can keep an eye on the measure’s progress and help advocate for it. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Hopefully you’ll also have identified things that aren’t necessary to your proposal that you’d be willing to part with if it means passing the bill. In some cases, this could mean doing something for a shorter amount of time with a “pilot project” to see if it works. In other cases, it might mean narrowing the scope (and price tag) of what we’re asking for. Whatever this is, be flexible, because our primary intent is to create a precedent by passing something.

All bills at the Legislature have to “agree” in order to make it to final reading. It’s rare for bills to pass both chambers without multiple amendments, so most bills that make it this far can be expected to be assigned to conference committee, which is a committee consisting of House and Senate subject matter counterparts who must reconcile a bill.

If one chamber produces a really great bill, you could always petition the lead subject matter chair to agree to the other chamber’s amendments, and that will send you on the home stretch. If the bill has things like a defective date (meaning it won’t go into effect, ever) or blank appropriations inserted by committees, you’ll have to go to conference. 

The key to surviving conference committee is simple. As you will hopefully have been talking to chairs all throughout this process, you’ll need to convince them beforehand that this idea is straightforward, uncomplicated and relatively inexpensive to do. I call this “grey rock.” Make your bill as harmless and uninteresting as a grey rock with respect to the state budget and you should be fine.

Anything else will result in them flaking out or erring on the side of conservatism, which means your idea will die that session.

When your bill actually does clear conference committee and final reading, it will be sent to the governor’s desk for signature. If you know that a certain executive department will be tasked with overseeing or implementing your idea, it’s a good idea at this point to take your supporters to that department or agency and ask to meet with their leadership for a talk.

Consult the LRB directory of public officials and match your bill to the agency or program lead, then contact them. Why is this important? Because if they don’t like it or feel uncomfortable with it, they’ll tell the governor to veto it.

Putting It All Together

As you can see from reading this guide, making it through from idea to law is a long and intricate process, but it is easier than it looks and only requires that you be willing to follow up and follow-through until it is done.

The No. 1 myth that I’d like to bust with this guide is that only lobbyists, partisans and connected large donors get things passed. That is totally wrong; those are just the people who show up most of the time. If you, your neighbors, and your community do these things and do them consistently, you’ll be passing bills in no time.

All it takes is people willing to take action, volunteer a little time and pay attention. Try it! 

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister.

Danny holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Administration from UT San Antonio, 2001; a Master of Arts in  Political Science (concentration International Organizations) and minor in Humanities from Texas State University, 2002.

He received his Doctor of Theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary in 2013 and Doctor of Ministry in 2014.

Danny received his Ordination from United Fellowship of Christ Ministries International, (Non-Denominational Christian), in 2002.

Latest Comments (0)

The passage of marriage equality in 2013 is a prime example of a citizen led effort of many years.

Nala007 · 2 months ago

Aloha, To prove your point, you need look no further than the Street Bikers United work to repeal Hawaii's mandatory motorcycle helmet law back in the 70's. It took work and commitment and whether you agree with the law or not, it showed the process does work.

JamesM · 2 months ago

I wonder how many "ordinary citizens" can take that much time off work to try to pass their bill. Yes, this is the process, but it's not available to very many people. Also, in my observation over the past 15 years, it rarely works that smoothly. I've seen people put all the time and effort in on behalf of their idea year after year and feel lucky if it becomes law after ten years of effort! Danny, if you have succeeded in this way, it's because you are not an "ordinary citizen". You are a public citizen. You are much more able to get in to see key politicians than is an ordinary citizen.

JusticePlease · 2 months ago

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