About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

You only get into trouble when you start playing games that go beyond taking care of the people’s business.

Congratulations, we’ve made it to the start of the 2024 regular session of the Hawaii Legislature, which will commence with Opening Day on Wednesday.

Other key upcoming dates to remember, for those of you who are members of the public, will be the State of the State address by Gov. Josh Green on Jan. 22, followed by the cutoff for the introduction of all bills on Jan. 24.

And, if you’ve read my column about how to get bills introduced and passed at the Legislature and have bills or resolutions that are about to be filed on your behalf, good on you! This session has the potential to be a great finisher before the November elections, and I hope that engaged citizens will make it a point to be active, rather than reactive, in this process.

Legislators: Keep It Simple, Keep It Clean

As for the Senate and House chairs reading this column, my advice this session is to please just keep it simple and keep it clean this year. We start off every session the same way, with optimism, beautiful speeches and glowing statements of purpose, and then in a few days rapidly devolve into personality conflicts, grandstanding and unnecessary territorial marking of legislative fire hydrants. 

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When I was growing up, we used to have something called the “60 Minutes Rule.” That meant, for those of us in government, “Don’t do anything in private that you don’t want highlighted with an investigative episode of the show 60 Minutes.” 

I think we’ve graduated in our heinous behavior to now revise that rule to “Don’t do something that will get you featured as an existential crisis on Frontline” but this should not be so for a state that purports to put such a great emphasis on “pono” and “aloha” values.

In truth, if you are an elected official in Hawaii, your job is very simple: Fund the government, don’t let cities burn down and keep the lights on. (And lately, it seems we need to work on the last two.) If I were to write the position description for a Senate or House committee chair, it would be: “Show up to work on time; sign documents with a felt marker when asked; and occasionally participate in a procedural vote where a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice is blatantly obvious.” 

Yes, you have the easiest job in the world, and if you stick to doing your job, we will all be better off for it, and you’ll probably even get elected to higher office, if that is what you seek. Let’s explore how.

Lawmakers should pursue the people’s business, not personal grudges. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Focus On Right Now And Just Say What You Mean

The first thing we need to do this legislative session is to get our focus in the present. This means thinking less strategically and more tactically with regards to “How do we make sure that the next two years of Hawaii are marked by fully functioning, adequately funded government?”

One of the ways committee chairs like to say no to people is something to the effect of, “Well, we would like to see more data so that our members can make a better decision.” Then you stop to ask the actual other members of the committee what kind of data they’re looking for, and they tell you that they never even talked to the chair about that subject and have no reservations about your idea. Say what?

If you ask me, this process would be more efficient if we just came right out and said things like “No, I don’t like that, let’s skip it” rather than wasting time pretending to work on an issue. That way, we can all work on the things marked as “yes” rather than deliberating over changing the “no” in vain.

Core government functions like public safety, infrastructure, education, basic welfare and so on should be prioritized as our goals for optimization. Get the foundation strong and secure, and then everything else we build on top of that will be strong. But if we have a “hollow force” in Hawaii where every department, agency and initiative is running overstretched with only the minimal legislative support behind it, nothing we do, big or small, short-term or long will work.

Some bills are introduced every year not to get passed but simply to “make a point” by their introduction. Honestly, you guys should hold off on that for 2024. Politics has already become an embittering process for most Americans, and the last thing we need are legislators getting into petty partisan or ideological dramas just to prove to their base they are lions of a niche issue. This session, bottle the acid and introduce practical things that can be easily funded, easily implemented, or that add efficiency or value to public. 

House floor session is reflected by the chandelier hanging above the House floor. April 29, 2021
There’s no point in introducing legislation with no hope of passing just to make a point. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Stop Creating Legislative Insurgency

Usually around the second month of session, I’ll get a call on my lunch break from an elected official telling me how a colleague shafted them, and how they’re now looking for people to primary that person — that is, find someone to run against them in the next primary election. I always respond the same way: “Instead of telling me that, tell that to the person who offended you and do the job you were elected to do.”

Creating legislative insurgency during session is extremely petty. If you have something against a colleague, the correct procedure is to speak to them in private and bring the matter to their attention. Don’t undermine people by proxy; tell colleagues what’s wrong or inappropriate and be forthright but allow them to save face by doing it in private. If that doesn’t work, bring other people with you to confront them. 

This practice of pretending to like people in public but sabotaging them in private is one of the reasons we don’t have trust between legislators. Often, what the public and media thinks is a dispute over policy is merely a dispute over personality or a sophomoric competition over who can out-insult the other. Stop it.

Stay Above Reproach

Last but not least, one of the easiest mistakes to make is to jeopardize one’s policy credibility or legislative authority by doing things that are inappropriate. Be on your absolute best behavior when you go to work for the people of Hawaii, and never do something just because you can do it. Always consider how the public will perceive what you do and say.

Power is extremely deceptive in that it has the tendency to make people think that they can do whatever they want because, “Don’t you know who I am?” But the truth is, none of us here in Hawaii have the kind of power or mandate that would give us the right to act unethically, unprofessionally or immorally. When you swear an oath to protect and defend the U.S. and state constitution, you’re also implicitly committing to protecting the character and decorum of the office you hold. Mind your bearing.

We’ve started a new year and we’re about to start a new legislative session. How hard can this be? How stressful might this become? It shouldn’t be hard or stressful at all, if you just do your job, keep your nose clean, and focus on what’s most important. That is all.

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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. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

Amen. And let's not forget about accountability for all of our tax dollars. Apparently, taxpayers are on the hook for public school maintenance workers "hazard pay" during the pandemic. Great way to take care of unions and unionized employees, that faced no hazard aside from getting out of bed and having to report to work, versus most (SUI) that never answered calls and hid remotely while failing to make unemployment benefits available to the thousands that couldn't work. Let's account for every dime spent in the massive $19B state budget, where it goes, why and how much.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

Abandon "plantation politics" and instead adopt the simple concept of "public service".

DayGeckoArt · 1 month ago

Keep up the good work CB

Concernedtaxpayer · 1 month ago

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