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Kaua‘i lawmakers on anti-corruption proposals: Transparency and term limits

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on the public corruption reform proposals put forward by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct.

LIHU‘E — In the wake of a series of shocking public corruption scandals, the state Legislature convened a panel of experts earlier this year to develop reforms aimed at restoring faith in government.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, headed by retired Judge Dan Foley, released more than 30 proposals last week intended to increase transparency, strengthen investigation of fraud, improve ethical awareness and oversight and reduce the power of money in politics.

These proposals include implementing 16-year term limits, requiring an explanation when bills are “killed” in committee, banning solicitation of funds during the campaign session, and increasing public funding for campaigns.

Now it is up to the state Legislature, including Kaua‘i lawmakers, to decide whether to put these reforms into law next session.

Senate President Ron Kouchi (D-8, Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau) declined to discuss specifics from the commission report with The Garden Island, instead issuing the following statement:

“As with all other reports received from similarly created advisory committees, the Senate will review and consider all issues and concerns raised in the report and duly consider any resulting proposed legislation that may be introduced based upon the report,” Kouchi wrote.

The commission also detailed a series of recent public corruption cases, including the drug trafficking conspiracy led by former Kaua‘i County Council Member Arthur Brun, and the bribery scandal earlier this year in which two former legislators were arrested for accepting bribes from wastewater executive Milton Choy in exchange for introducing and killing legislation to benefit Choy’s companies.

“The acts of a few individuals have led many to believe that a deep moral crisis exists throughout each corner of the state,” the report reads. “Hawai‘i is at a critical juncture in regard to restoring public trust in government and reforming areas of the law related to issues, such as corruption, fraud, ethics, elections and campaign finance.”

Term limits

Among the most significant proposals in the commission report is a measure that would introduce a ballot question to cap lawmakers total time in the Legislature at 16 years.

Time in office before 2026 would not count toward this 16-year total, so several long-tenured members of the Legislature, including Speaker of the House Scott Saiki and Kaua‘i Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, would not be affected.

Sixteen states currently have some form of term limit on their state legislators, a policy that advocates see as a way to reduce the danger of public corruption.

“With time comes entrenchment,” said former state Senator and reform advocate Gary Hooser, who listed the proposal as one of the most significant to come out of the report. “So I think it’s good to get fresh ideas and move over and let new leadership step in and grow. Sixteen years is a good compromise. It allows people to gain experience, but yet it doesn’t allow them to make it a lifetime job.”

State Rep. Dee Morikawa, who represents west and south Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau and is majority floor leader, praised the commission report, and expressed confidence that the Legislature would address some of the proposals next session. But Morikawa also threw cold water on some of the more aggressive proposals, including term limits.

“As far as term limits, we representatives run for office every two years and can be voted out at any time,” she said. “Experience is valuable, and when it comes to policies, I’m sure our constituents want representation they can trust.”

Tokioka, who has represented Lihu‘e, portions of Wailua and the South Shore for 16 years, didn’t give an opinion on the proposed term limits, but said that House members tend to naturally retire before their 16 years, and that losing politicians with institutional knowledge to term limits could open up avenues for corruption among unelected staff.

Transparency

In order to increase transparency, the commission report recommended committee chairs be required to explain their reasoning for indefinitely deferring bills.

Frequently, a bill dies in a state Legislature committee when a chair defers it indefinitely or elects not to schedule it for a hearing.

This occurred in the Milton Choy case, when former state Sen. J. Kalani English accepted bribes to kill a cesspool bill that would have impacted Choy’s company.

Tokioka was supportive of this measure, while Morikawa was less enthusiastic.

“I agree that sometimes you need to defer a bill, because there’s too many, there are too many problems with it or there’s not enough consensus,” said Tokioka. “And I think it’s appropriate for the committee chair to give their reasoning for why they deferred the bill.”

“Because of the limited time of the session, the transparency that the public would want cannot realistically happen for every bill,” Morikawa said. “However, chairs will hear legislation that they feel has a chance of passing.”

Hooser supported the measure as long as it required a specific explanation and advocated for an amendment requiring a committee vote on killing measures.

“The chair has the power to kill legislation without anybody’s permission or approval, for whatever reason,” Hooser said. “And someone can pay them off. But if they don’t have that power and they have to get other people to vote on it, then they’re less valuable.”

The state Legislature will begin its next session in January 2023.

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Guthrie Scrimgeour, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-0329 or gscrimgeour@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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