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. Other’s 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.
HB796 – Proposing term limits for all state legislators was killed by Representative David Tarnas Chair of the House Judiciary Committee 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 SB1543 was killed.
It certainly wasn’t for a lack of public support. The telephone calls and emails coming in to legislators supporting SB1543 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 SB1543. Committee and floor votes were held on 7 different occasions and each time 100% of the Democrats voted in support, and only 3 Republicans were opposed. Not one single Democrat even voted with “Reservations” – all were solid votes up, in support.
Yet, SB1543 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 Representative Kyle Yamashita (Finance) and Senator Donovan Dela Cruz (Ways and Means).
Who to blame? The most direct figures who should take the hit are obviously the money chairs. Right along side 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 SB1543 either.
The advocacy group “Our Hawaii” said it best in a tweet on the final day of Conference:
“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 4 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. Bill’s can be massaged and amended ad infinitum but no amount of tweaking will change the reality that 4 guys call all the shots – only the elections of 2024 can change that.
The good news is a relatively small number of new, strong, value based voices could make a huge difference. A focused, and sustained effort, across all islands is what’s needed.
The August 2024 primary election is only 15 months away. We can do this.
Thanks for the update, Gary. It should not be possible for two men who didn’t win a statewide election to kill a bill that an overwhelming majority of lawmakers have voted in favor of. The bicameral legislature system is an undemocratic farce. Although, with that said, I think the reason we had 73 of 76 lawmakers voting for publicly funded elections is that good proportion of them were counting on the money chairs playing the bad guys.
Mahalo Cade for the comment and apologies for taking so long to post it. Now you are approved and the comment should post automatically in the future. I agree…there is lots of work/improvement to be done…to put it mildly. 😉