The Political Radar blog had an interesting item on a letter from legislative leaders asking the attorney general to weigh in on the Ethics Commission’s ruling that members of task forces and working groups formed by the Legislature must follow the same ethics rules on lobbying as members of other state boards and commissions.
I’ll leave it to the courts to decide the legalities, if legislators and the Ethics Commission push it that far.
But questions of what is illegal under the state’s narrow ethics laws and what is unethical are often two different things.
House Speaker Calvin Say and Senate President Shan Tsutsui said in their letter that legislators rely on task forces to gather expert information and that subjecting members to ethical restrictions on lobbying would have a “chilling effect.”
You could turn that around and argue that the Legislature’s reliance on task forces free of ethical reins has a chilling effect on openness, transparency and the public’s right to fair participation in the legislative process.
When lawmakers gather information by traditional means such as public hearings and workshops, everything is in the open and everybody gets their say.
When the information gathering is turned over to “experts” on shadowy task forces, the chosen few who are appointed have special access to legislators’ ears and everybody else is excluded from having a voice in a key part of the decision-making.
When the “experts” given exclusive access to legislators’ ears are paid lobbyists on the issue and often contributors to lawmakers’ campaigns, we have an ethics problem.
Say and Tsutsui contend that the Ethics Commission’s stance denies lobbyists and their employers their “constitutional right to petition government.”
That’s nonsense. They can petition government by writing letters and testifying at hearings like everybody else; they just don’t get privileged access.
An example of the problem is the task force that ignited the dispute — a panel on urban development formed by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz that required inclusion of the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council, the General Contractors Association of Hawaii and “any other interested stakeholders or entities, including but not limited to developers, architects, and contractors.”
There was no required representation from the large part of the community that favors less development rather than more.
I said in a column that the membership list looks more like campaign donors dividing up the spoils than “experts,” and it invites shady dealings to allow such a group to operate without ethical restrictions.