About the Author

Russell Ruderman

Russell Ruderman is a former state senator and Big Island business owner. He writes about state and county politics, business, agriculture and the local food industry. Russell lives in Kea’au with his wife and daughter. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Civil Beat. You can reach him at russellruderman@gmail.com.


We already know the corruption that the current system has produced and is perpetuating. Let’s try something different.

As the new legislative session gets going, the obvious focus will be on addressing fire safety in light of the Maui fires and housing. These are good priorities and will keep the legislators busy. 

But there remains the unanswered call for serious ethical and democratic reforms. This call followed the conviction of two state legislators — former Senate majority leader J. Kalani English and former Rep. Ty Cullen — for taking money for favors, and other scandals that have dominated the headlines.

In response the House Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct gave its recommendations a year ago. While some worthy reforms occurred last year, the most important reforms were (surprise, surprise) not enacted. 

The Big Three are term limits for legislators, public financing of campaigns and citizen initiative. These are the top three because they can potentially reach into all the dark corners of our legislative process. It’s time for the Legislature to address its anti-democratic practices and pass these reforms. 

To be clear, I’m not holding my breath. Most of our state legislators seem to be more concerned with maintaining the status quo and protecting their careers and privileges than representing the people. This was abundantly clear while I was in the Legislature and remains unchanged – in fact it appears even worse now. 

Two of these reforms will take years to happen, at best. Term limits for legislators and citizen initiative would not only require passage in the Legislature, but also a public vote for a constitutional amendment. So even if a bill succeeded, another year or two would pass before it takes effect.

During this time all the powerful lobbying groups can mount their campaigns to defeat the effort at the ballot box. The status quo may prevail, but shouldn’t we get the chance to have our say? 

Eight years maximum in any position is plenty of time. Somehow it works just fine for our county councils, mayors and governor. What is the magical power that requires the Legislature to be exempt? (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

All we are asking is for a chance at democracy. Our system is “representative democracy,” where elected officials enact laws on our behalf. But for extremely important changes such as constitutional amendments, we the people get to vote.

Why are legislators so afraid of allowing this? It’s like the foxes are making the rules for the henhouse, and the poor fowl don’t get to vote.

Some well-meaning citizen groups don’t support term limits or initiative and have good theoretical reasons. For example, what if a good, honest legislator (funny, huh?) becomes a good, honest leader in our House or Senate – let’s not limit their time there to do good. To those I would ask “How’s this working out so far?” 

Isn’t it time to try something different to get different results? Eight years maximum in any position is plenty of time. Somehow it works just fine for our county councils, mayors and governor. What is the magical power that requires the Legislature to be exempt?

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Another objection often heard about initiatives is they can be manipulated by big money campaigns. Again, I would ask those with such concerns to look carefully at the current situation. How is it working now?

Big money groups choose our elected officials who then do their bidding. Let’s try something different. We already know the corruption that the current system has produced and is perpetuating. 

Term limits were proposed last year, and the bill was killed by a single legislator, Rep. David Tarnas. The chair of the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee did not allow a discussion or a vote on this profoundly important issue.

Instead he quoted one testifier who agreed with his anti-democratic position and killed the bill. A system that allows one person to kill reforms is not democracy, not even the representative kind.

Of course, he was just following orders, but this makes it worse, not better. When do the people get represented? 

A system that allows one person to kill reforms is not democracy, not even the representative kind.

It has often been said by such powerful chairs that they don’t want to “expose our members to a difficult vote.” Seriously! Isn’t this the minimum obligation of an elected leader, to make those difficult votes and let their constituents know where they stand? We deserve to know how they will vote, then to be able to make an informed decision about whether they are representing us or not. 

Another example of the need for change is the nepotism law passed last year. This was trotted out as an example of successful reform. Surprise again, it excluded the Legislature. The leaders pointed to their own rules and said “We don’t need a law applying to us, we’ll take care of it ourselves by rule.”

But in one case, John Mizuno’s wife, May, was his office manager for over 15 years with no one saying a word about it. It was so accepted that she was just appointed to succeed him in his district after he was named the state’s homeless czar. So instead of controlling nepotism, they accept it and reward it.

We need serious reforms that actually matter. 

The House of Representatives David Tarnas answers a question about legalizing recreational cannabis after opening day the legislative session Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Term limits were proposed last year, and the bill was killed by a single legislator, Rep. David Tarnas. The committee chair did not allow a discussion or a vote on this profoundly important issue. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

Public financing of elections has been discussed for years, and everyone seems to agree it’s a good thing. It has worked very well in other states and even in our counties for a while. This year, with expenditures for the fires, we will hear that there is simply not enough money for this. We hear this every year, for whatever reason is convenient. There’s always something — revenue shortfall, other crises, other priorities. 

But public financing has been rightfully called the reform that makes all other reforms possible. Until we get big money out of our elections, our democracy is not representing the people. It’s representing big money. The amount needed is less than one-tenth of 1% of our budget. And spending this money will save us many times more when we have less corruption, less pork projects and less waste in a system that represents the people and our interests. 

Our democracy was not intended to benefit the careers of powerful individuals and corporations. It is supposed to benefit the people and our genuine needs. These three reforms can open the door to finally returning our system to control by the people, and not powerful entrenched interests. 


Read this next:

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About the Author

Russell Ruderman

Russell Ruderman is a former state senator and Big Island business owner. He writes about state and county politics, business, agriculture and the local food industry. Russell lives in Kea’au with his wife and daughter. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Civil Beat. You can reach him at russellruderman@gmail.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Thank you, Russ. I am so very glad that you speak up about this stuff; it flies under the radar for too many of us. Term limits are ESSENTIAL, here and everywhere. It's utterly ridiculous that we don't have them for the Leg.

Niele · 3 weeks ago

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct recommended term limits for legislators (16 years as an attempt to accommodate views on both sides of this issue) and public financing of elections. Term limits received a hearing in the House but not the Senate. Public financing of elections moved in both houses and I believe has a real shot this session.The Commission did consider but did not recommend state-wide initiative. We currently have county initiative.Our three state constitutional conventions similarly considered state-wide initiative but declined to propose it as well. One concern is big money and now super PACs proposing amendments to our constitution. Another is protection of minority rights. Once a constitutional amendment is adopted, it is pretty much immune from review of our courts (the exception would be if the amendment violates the US Constitution). Native Hawaiian rights, minority rights, environmental protections, etc., may be at far greater risk from well financed special interests especially given Citizens United) than from the more deliberative process of elected representatives in the legislature or constitutional convention.

judgefoley · 3 weeks ago

It never changes because it is in the culture. Many people, many, maybe the majority, think this is perfectly fine, normal, nothing at all wrong with it, behavior.

Kai · 3 weeks ago

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