About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.

As the Legislature convenes, legislators are considering a raft of proposed laws and must decide which to champion.

With mere days remaining until the 2024 Hawaii Legislature convenes, legislators and their staffs are engaged in a high-stakes sprint to finalize and file their proposed bills before the deadline on Jan. 24. This year’s session promises to be particularly challenging, with major issues to tackle, a last-minute increase in state revenues to allocate and geopolitical uncertainty that could impact our economic future.

Each legislator is managing a lengthy list of their own ideas and an overflowing inbox of suggestions from constituents, advocates and special interest groups. With over 2,800 bills already on deck from last year’s session, legislators are limited in the number of proposals they can introduce and must carefully select which new ideas to champion.

That brings us to the three categories I used to sort these contenders: The Workhorses, The Spotlight Stealers, and The Safety Nets. As a legislator, these categories not only helped me determine my own bills but also helped me gauge other legislators’ priorities.

The Workhorses: Substantive Bills

These are the problem-solvers, tackling real issues with well-defined solutions. They require research, stakeholder input and careful crafting to garner support. Think healthcare reform, education initiatives or infrastructure improvements. These are the bills that you work on well before the session begins, often in the summer or early fall.

For example, I spent the entire summer speaking with contractors and developers to better understand their work, and after dozens of conversations, I had a much more detailed grasp of what held up affordable housing in Hawaii.  Of course, finding solutions and passing them are two very different tasks. In retrospect, I should have started even earlier and narrowed down my proposals quicker so that I had more time to workshop them with potential allies who could have helped support them.

Most citizens who bring an idea to a legislator should aim to get their bill in this category, which requires engaging early, showing up with preliminary research and helping to build stakeholder buy-in. The first bill that I had signed into law came from a constituent in the Hawaii National Guard who explained that, unlike federal employees, state employees were not allowed to use their paid annual military leave to attend monthly reserve and national guard training. We were ultimately successful in changing the law to mirror federal law because we had the time to research and draft the bill, run it by stakeholders, gain support from the committee chair and identify testifiers before the session began.

As a constituent bill with a clear purpose, sound argument, and ample support, it was an easy choice to include it in my bill package that year.

The Spotlight Stealers: Political Bills

These are statements more than solutions, often addressing hot-button issues to raise awareness or make a point. At best, they are both political statements and sound policy proposals. At worst, they’re unconstitutional and unworkable bills submitted just to appeal to a political base or interest group.

Working in the House Minority Research Office, I received regular requests from legislators who wanted their constituents to see them addressing an issue that fell outside the authority of the Legislature. When I would make the uncomfortable phone call to their office explaining that it was a national issue, a private sector problem or just generally unconstitutional, the response was usually some version of “I don’t care” or “just do it anyway.” I have no doubt Democratic offices experienced the same intransigence from certain legislators, but I suspect it happened more often with Republican legislators who knew their bill wouldn’t make it through a committee regardless of its legitimacy.

Some constituents want bills addressing hot-button issues, even if they’re not in the Legislature’s purview. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

As a legislator, I tried to steer clear of using bills to make purely political statements. But I remember digging in rather stubbornly on one bill that was meant to improve school safety. Following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, I spoke to many of the schools in my district about ways the Legislature could help bolster their ability to protect their students. A simple problem that came up in conversation was that some teachers couldn’t lock their doors from the inside. So, I drafted a bill requiring classroom doors to lock from the inside without a key, code, or remote device.

Of course, as a new legislator, I didn’t even think to run it by the teachers, fire departments or building code experts. When they weighed in, they raised concerns ranging from fire rescues to disruptive students locking out their teachers. But in a community of young families sending their kids to some of the most crowded schools in the state, I pushed the bill anyway because I wanted people to know that it was something I cared about. More than a decade later, I still think the idea deserved more consideration, but it would have been better to focus on solutions that had a better chance of passing.

The Safety Nets: Just-in-Case Bills

These are bills technically called short-form bills, which are submitted by committee chairs to address issues that arise during the legislative session. The state Constitution requires that the title of a bill, which cannot be amended, match the subject matter it contains. To ensure that there is a vehicle in the committee to handle an unforeseen problem, committee chairs will introduce a few bills with intentionally broad titles.  

Rep. Linda Ichiyama, chair of the House Committee on Water and Land, was the first to submit short-form bills for the 2024 session. The titles read, “Relating to Water,” “Relating to Land,” “Relating to Zoning” and “Relating to Disaster.” Clearly, she’s done a good job of covering her bases. We’ll see more as we get closer to the bill introduction deadline, but legislators already have over 100 short-form bills from last year to work with.

For citizens, these are a longshot option for getting your priorities heard by the Legislature, particularly if they relate to emergencies that happen during session. For example, if you find a new invasive species taking over your neighborhood, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are sure to have a “Relating to Agriculture” short-form bill that can help.

Understanding these categories helps not only legislators prioritize their own bills but also advocates focus their efforts. Remember, the system may seem opaque, but it’s driven by human motivations. By understanding the pressures and priorities of legislators, advocates can navigate the legislative labyrinth and give their ideas their best chance of survival.

Don’t forget there are many resources available to help. The Legislative Reference Bureau offers invaluable guides, and, last month, my colleague, Danny de Gracia wrote a nice piece on how citizens can insert themselves into the process. You can also keep up with new bill introductions as we hurtle toward the 2024 session by clicking on the “Reports and Lists” button on the Legislature’s website.


Read this next:

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About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo for an honest explanation why we have been beating our heads against the wall. As a condo advocate I agree with Greg's suggestion re HB178 and HB1501

Honolulu_Lulu · 1 month ago

I ask condominium owners throughout Hawaii, to please ask your respective legislators in the House and the Senate to schedule hearings for HB178 and HB1501. Both bills are consumer protection measures meant to provide a place for owners and condominium associations to file complaints and resolve disputes, without the current and ineffective mediation process and costly litigation. Hawaii residents need to make their voices heard.

Greg · 1 month ago

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