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HOOSER: Legislature fails on major reform efforts

Two legislators were busted last year for taking bribes in return for helping a prolific campaign donor with legislation benefiting his company. Immediately, with much fanfare, House Speaker Scott Saiki created a “Commission To Improve Standards of Conduct,” and vowed to take action.

The commission did excellent work, held numerous meetings, and submitted 31 recommendations to the 2023 Legislature for action. Others also introduced “reform agenda” measures with similar themes.

The consolidation of power, and the ability of individual legislators to kill a bill without a vote, without notice and without an explanation — invites corruption, both legal and illegal.

The insatiable need to raise campaign money to be elected and to remain elected is an inherently and unhealthy reality for all involved.

The 2023 Legislature failed completely to address these key issues. While some modest reform proposals were approved, the much ballyhooed effort fell far short of the bold reforms needed.

The two most significant reforms that would have provided true systemic change both failed.

House Bill 796, which proposed term limits for all state legislators, was killed by House Judiciary Committee Chair David Tarnas without even allowing a committee vote. Senate Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads also killed a similar measure without giving it a hearing or allowing the public to provide input.

Many refer to voter-owned, publicly-funded, clean elections, as the “reform that makes all other reforms possible.” This is probably exactly why Senate Bill 1543 was killed.

It certainly wasn’t for a lack of public support. The telephone calls and emails coming in to legislators supporting SB 1543 represented a relentless stream of community support from all islands and all demographics. Opposition to the measure was negligible to nonexistent.

In addition to strong public support, 73 of the 76 legislators voted in support of SB 1543. Committee and floor votes were held on seven different occasions and each time 100 percent of the Democrats voted in support, and only three Republicans were opposed. Not one single Democrat even voted with “reservations” — all were solid votes up, in support.

Yet, SB 1543 died in Conference Committee without a vote and without much of an explanation. In their final remarks, the two Judiciary chairs on the Conference Committee made thinly veiled references to the lack of support by the money chairs, Rep. Kyle Yamashita (Finance) and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz (Ways and Means).

Who to blame? The most direct figures who should take the hit are obviously the money chairs. Right alongside them, though, are their powerful enablers, Speaker of the House Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi.

House/Senate “leadership” in theory represents a majority of members in both chambers. They have the power to go to the “money chairs” and ask them to “find the money and make it happen.” Clearly, “leadership” was not interested in passing SB 1543 either.

The advocacy group “Our Hawai‘i” said it best in a tweet on the final day of conferences: “Funds allocated to clean up the reflecting pool at the Capitol reflecting pools? $33.5 million. Funds allocated to clean up our politics? $0 – It’s never been about the cost, it’s about whether getting #bigmoneyout of our politics is a priority.”

Clearly, for these four gentlemen and those legislators in both the House and the Senate who carry their water, getting money out of politics is not a priority.

What’s next? For those who believe in our system of government yet are dismayed at the toxic culture of entitlement held by too many legislators, what tools and strategies are left?

The answer is obviously electoral and not policy based. Bills can be massaged and amended ad infinitum, but no amount of tweaking will change the reality that four guys call all the shots. Only competitive elections in 2024 will change that.


Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and served eight years in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council.
Source: The Garden Island

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