Term Limits In Hawai’i – Shortening the long game for state legislators

As the 2022 legislative session begins anew, it’s time also to begin a statewide conversation about term limits.

Few are pleased with the status quo. Though our current legislative leadership posses decades of experience, clearly that’s not enough.

“We already have term limits, they’re called elections” is the stock response, and until relatively recently, the position I subscribed to.

However, after 20 years of working within the system, I’ve come to believe differently.

Term limits will put a stop to the do-nothing, take no risk, keep your head down, go along to get along, “long game” strategy that too often infects those who aspire to serve in elected office.

The problems and challenges facing us today are far too urgent to play the long game or any games at all. An 8-year term is plenty enough time for new elected leaders to make their mark, and to set and accomplish their goals.

The barriers to entry for new candidates are formidable. Money, name recognition and a conscious manipulation of the system by those already in power give incumbents an overwhelming advantage while keeping newcomers out.

The basic cost to run a campaign for the state Legislature can run between $40,000 to $100,000, sometimes more. Because there’s no cap on the amount incumbents can raise, some sit on “war chests” approaching $1 million, much of it raised during the legislative session from the very interests they are charged to regulate.

Legislators, by virtue of their position, are frequently in the public spotlight. They are constantly cutting ribbons or “breaking ground” at some new school, highway or community center. They hold press conferences and issue press releases. In recent years, state legislators have taken to sending out glossy mailers under the guise of constituent surveys or a “report to the district.” These taxpayer-funded mailings conveniently become more frequent in the months preceding an election.

As if money and name recognition were not enough, incumbents are further protected via a deliberate manipulation of the law-making process itself. The rules and actions of the legislative body are designed to “protect the members” from negative political exposure that comes with “hard votes.” Controversial issues rarely get voted on until they’re severely diluted, endlessly delayed, or pushed off to a task force.

An especially egregious example of the system being manipulated to favor incumbent legislators is the current process of district reapportionment. Legislators attempting to improve their electoral opportunities are at this very moment, actively lobbying the Reapportionment

Commission. The commission has been given the home address of sitting legislators, even though the State Constitution says explicitly that the drawing of the maps should avoid “favoring” anyone. The ongoing delays favor incumbents and hamstring challengers whose campaigns are awaiting the final maps.

Yes, the cards are stacked high against new candidates, new voices, new ideas, and new leadership.

The governor, lieutenant governor, mayor and all Council members in all counties already serve with term limitations. These term limits have not caused the weakening of government operations, nor have they empowered the deep state, or created a dearth of expertise.

What term limits do is create an opportunity for change. Our elected leaders are given eight years to pursue their goals and then they move on, creating space for others to step up.

There is no shortage of other opportunities to serve. Those “termed out” can work elsewhere in the public, private or nonprofit sectors, if indeed service is their primary focus and motivation.

Fifteen states including California and Colorado currently limit the terms of state legislators. It’s time for Hawaii to join them.

To accomplish this goal requires a constitutional amendment. This means incumbent legislators must vote to place this question on the ballot and allow the people to vote it up or down.

A heavy lift perhaps — but the conversation needs to be had.

About garyhooser

This blog represents my thoughts as an individual person and does not represent the official position of any organization I may be affiliated with. I presently serve as volunteer President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (H.A.P.A.) www.hapahi.org I am the former Vice-Chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. In another past life, I was an elected member of the Kauai County Council, a Hawaii State Senator, and Majority Leader, and the Director of Environmental Quality Control for the State of Hawaii - in an even earlier incarnation I was an entrepreneur and small business owner. Yes, I am one of the luckiest guys on the planet. Please visit my website AND sign up for my newsletter (unlike any email newsletter you have ever gotten, of that I am sure) - http://www.garyhooser.com/#four “Come to the edge.” “We can’t. We’re afraid.” “Come to the edge.” “We can’t. We will fall!” “Come to the edge.” And they came. And he pushed them. And they flew. - Christopher Logue (b.1926)
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1 Response to Term Limits In Hawai’i – Shortening the long game for state legislators

  1. JonOlsen says:

    Absolutely! Term limits! We have these here in Maine and also citizen initiatives that become law. It takes something like 65,000 valid signatures to do it, but we have succeeded several times including putting a good food sovereignty measure into the Constitution. We get a very large chunk on election day, since signatures need to be from registered voters in each separate town, where the clerks verify that each signature is from a registered voter in that town.
    Popular measures can generate several hundred signature gathering volunteers, with usually 2-3 paid staff to coordinate. It means going out in cold weather at viable locations subsequently as well. It takes WORK but can be done. Maine’s resident population is nearly identical to that of Hawai’i–around 1.2 million. Take the attitude that “No” is unacceptable.

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