Posted tagged ‘Legislature’

Legislators continue ethics fight

September 14, 2011

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.

Governor must answer, ‘Where’s the beef?’

August 17, 2011

In his speech today updating constituents on the status of his “New Day” program, Gov. Neil Abercrombie once again did an excellent job of describing the major challenges that Hawai‘i faces.

But he still hasn’t gotten to the hardest part — prescribing specific remedies that a critical mass of Hawai‘i residents will support despite the sacrifices they will certainly entail.

The governor basically declared that he has state finances in the black and the wheels of government aligned more to his liking and is now ready to focus on a “gathering storm” that threatens Hawai‘i’s  future.

He identified the five elements of the threat as the massive debt we face with some $22 billion in unfunded pension and medical benefits owed public workers, soaring healthcare costs, our over-reliance on outside energy and food, inadequate support for education and social services, and the potential for huge federal funding cuts.

His solution, as always, was his “New Day” plan to create jobs around a sustainable economy, invest in our children and make state government more efficient.

Abercrombie encouraged everybody to join in the sacrifices and took aim at Hawai‘i’s status quo that he was long seen as part of.

“The status quo insists that we conform to the way things have always been,” he said. “It is obsessed with illusory short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability. It favors the few. It outflanks the middle class, and it marginalizes those who need help the most. It questions and casts doubt upon new ideas. It stifles creativity and limits opportunity.”

It’s hard to argue with his logic, but the devil will be in the details — of which he offered few.

Abercrombie’s biggest problem is that he’s burned much of the political goodwill he had after landslide victories over Mufi Hannemann and James “Duke” Aiona.

Part of it was unavoidable, such as his necessarily tough stand in union negotiations that angered some of the noisiest labor and “progressive” elements of the Democratic Party.

Demanding that his political base make the same sacrifices as everybody else should have won him points with moderates and progressives who have always been suspicious of him.

But Abercrombie unnecessarily antagonized them with missteps such as his pointless tizzy fit on the Pro Bowl, his decision to shroud judicial appointments in secrecy for no good reason and a perceived arrogance exemplified by his infamous “I’m not your pal” remark.

He needs to smooth over some of the self-inflicted ill feelings and regain political capital so that next year he can face a Legislature that disregarded many of his ideas this year from a position of greater strength.

If he’s seen as weak and lacking public confidence, it’ll be everyone for themselves and he’ll get little cooperation on the shared sacrifices he seeks.

Les Kondo strikes again

August 11, 2011

Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo will likely have an even bigger target on his back with state legislators after he shot down a posh dinner well-heeled special interests planned for Hawai‘i lawmakers attending the National Conference of State Legislators in San Antonio.

According to the Hawaii Reporter, the event was cancelled after Kondo advised hosts that the value of the meal exceeded the $25 limit set by the ethics law on what legislators can accept.

Sponsors of the dinner included the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, Outrigger Enterprises, Hawaii Medical Services Association, Island Insurance, Coca Cola and the law firm of Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel.

Lawmakers will no doubt be furious, as they were earlier in the year when a similar determination by Kondo kept them away from a dinner sponsored by a prominent Democratic power broker.

They tried during this year’s session to counter the Ethics Commission’s tough stand by passing a bill that would have allowed legislators and other state employees to freely accept and even solicit meals, travel and other gifts worth up to $200 from special interests seeking to influence them.

Kondo deserves credit for standing firm in enforcing laws protecting the public against the buying and selling of official influence. Wealthy private interests shouldn’t be able to use expensive freebies to gather and indoctrinate lawmakers in a way ordinary citizens can’t.

Some legislators are clearly gunning for Kondo — they barely allowed him to speak at one House Judiciary Committee hearing — but hopefully ethics commissioners will resist the pressure and back him up like the Campaign Spending Commission did with Bob Watada a decade ago.

If they do, Kondo and the commission have the potential to give a backbone to loosely applied ethics rules in the same way Watada did with campaign fundraising.

Ethics chief in Legislature’s crosshairs again

August 4, 2011

Nobody knows how to paint a target on his back better than Les Kondo, executive director of the state Ethics Commission.

He got lawmakers’ noses seriously out of joint during this year’s legislative session when he told them that they couldn’t accept free tickets to a dinner hosted by a prominent Democratic power broker.

How dare he, they thought, and responded with a much-derided and ultimately failed bill that would have allowed them to accept or even solicit virtually unlimited travel and meals and other gifts worth up to $200 from just about anybody seeking to influence their actions.

Now Kondo has himself in legislators’ crosshairs again with his determination that private-interest members of task forces and working groups formed by lawmakers to help shape legislation can’t lobby the Legislature on the subject of the working groups.

This time they didn’t just think it, but actually voiced it. “How dare he tell us we can’t do that,” said state Sen. Rosalyn Baker.

Kondo is essentially subjecting members of the Legislature’s task forces and working groups to the same ethics rules that govern members of other state boards and commissions.

“Just because they label the group something else doesn’t mean it’s not the same animal,” he was quoted as saying in the Star-Advertiser. “You’re not supposed to be able to profit from the privilege of serving.”

That seems logical. The legislative task force that ignited the dispute — a working group on urban development established by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz — required inclusion of representatives 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.”

Why should self-interested members of these shadowy working groups that exert so much influence on public policy get a pass from state ethics laws?

Abercrombie ups the stakes on homelessness

July 27, 2011

Progress has been painfully slow in Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s high-profile battle to end homelessness in Hawai‘i, but give him credit for continuing to hack away at the problem and increase his personal accountability.

A state phone line set up for citizens to report homeless people in need of services drew some derision when few useful calls came in.

Some religious groups doggedly resisted the call of the governor and his homelessness czar Marc Alexander to stop feeding programs in the parks and instead move meal services to the shelters where the homeless can receive other help as well.

And at the halfway point of Abercrombie’s 90-day homelessness initiative, an unimpressive report card had just slightly more than 100 of Hawai‘i’s thousands of homeless helped off the streets.

Undaunted, the governor has now formally created a Hawai’i Interagency Council on Homelessness to bring together representatives from state, county and federal agencies and the private sector to coordinate social services for the homeless, increase transitional and permanent housing, pursue more federal funding and replicate successful initiatives in other states.

Abercrombie will chair the panel himself, putting his own neck on the line politically if the results don’t match the high expectations he’s set.

The latest move gets beyond the official urgency to do something to get the homeless off O‘ahu streets before the APEC meeting in November and reinforces the idea that solving the thorny problem of homelessness is more of a marathon than a sprint.

While the governor looks to the long term, state Reps. John Mizuno and Rida Cabanilla are calling their Human Services and Housing committees together Thursday to look specifically at issues surrounding APEC and the homeless.

A specific item on the agenda at 10 a.m. in Capitol conference room 329 is creating safe zones for the homeless around the island.

It’s always an adventure when Mizuno and Cabanilla get their heads together, but safe zones are worth considering on at least a temporary basis.  We can’t keep telling the homeless where they can’t go without giving them someplace they can go.

System for choosing UH regents falls short again

July 19, 2011

Once again, the regents advisory committee has given Gov. Neil Abercrombie only two candidates to pick from in filling a Big Island seat on the University of Hawai’i Board of Regents.

With no knock intended on the candidates — Kamehameha Schools vice president Gregory Chun and former Hawaii County managing director Barry Mizuno — that’s just too few for the governor to have a meaningful choice in shaping the board that directs the University of Hawai’i.

While the poorly conceived law passed by the Legislature to govern the selection panel allows members to turn over that few candidates, the customary number is for such advisory committees is four to six choices.

Giving only two effectively cuts the state’s chief executive out of the process and leaves choosing regents to a selection panel that represents a collection special interests that feed off the university and is accountable to nobody.

The issue flared earlier in the year when Abercrombie didn’t like any of the skimpy choices given him for two regents seats, but was turned down by the panel when he asked for more candidates. He appointed from what he had and the Senate Education Committee rejected both nominees as ill qualified.

The governor called the system broken and Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda agreed that the Legislature should consider changes next year.

Let’s hope they follow through. Ideally, lawmakers should put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to abolish the UH selection panel in favor of the successful model for Board of Education, under which the governor appoints whomever he pleases subject to confirmation by the Senate.

This is in line with the American tradition in which the executive appoints and the Legislature advises and consents, and it provides ample checks, balances and accountability.

At the very least, the Legislature must require the selection panel to give the governor four or more candidates to choose from for every seat.

Guv agrees to pay losing bidders

July 13, 2011

The last batch of bills signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie included one of the hold-your-nose gems of this year’s Legislature — HB 985, which allows the state to reimburse some losing bidders on public works projects  for the cost of preparing their bids.

The measure, which Abercrombie approved without comment, allows the state to spread around more money without evidence of public good to contractors who also happen to be generous campaign contributors to legislators and the governor.

The bill was introduced by Maui Reps. Angus McKelvey, Gil Keith-Agaran, Joe Souki and Kyle Yamashita, along with Kailua Rep. Pono Chong.

The reimbursements would apply to design-build contracts on projects worth $1 million or more, with the top three pre-qualified bidders eligible for repayment on the cost of preparing conceptual design drawings.

Sponsors said such welfare for losing contractors would encourage more small local companies to submit bids, but none of the House and Senate committees that approved the bill offered evidence that other jurisdictions have successfully used such methods to either increase the quality of competition or reduce contract costs.

Paying losing bidders is virtually unheard of in the private sector; reputable contractors view bid preparation as a cost of doing business and have it down to a science.

Testimony in support of the bill came mostly from architects, engineers and other consultants known to make political donations that obviously pay off nicely for them.

The measure was opposed by the City and County of Honolulu, which said, “Codifying a rigid process that destroys flexibility would be costly and disadvantageous.”

HB 985 received unanimous final passage in the House and drew “no” votes in the Senate only from Sens. Clayton Hee, Donna Mercado Kim, Sam Slom and Malama Solomon.

Challenges lie ahead for Hawaiian recognition

July 8, 2011

I’d like to feel good about the native Hawaiian recognition act signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, but it’s getting difficult to muster optimism as thorny issues of Hawaiian rights drag out.

The measure forms a commission to establish a roll of qualified Hawaiians, with the hope of eventually leading Hawai‘i’s indigenous people to some form of sovereign self-government.

The problem is that sovereignty implies a measure of independence from the state government, and it’s inherently contradictory for the state to organize the effort after Hawaiians have failed to organize themselves or even agree on a definition of sovereignty in the more than 30 years since the  movement began.

The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which is paying for the new effort, came up short in its well-publicized Kau Inoa program to organize a Hawaiian roll and constitutional convention. Prominent Hawaiian activist Bumpy Kanahele failed to gain traction with a similar effort.

The failure of Hawai‘i’s congressional delegation to pass the federal Akaka bill for Hawaiian political recognition exposes any special rights for Hawaiians granted by the state to legal challenges, as with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Rice v. Cayetano ruling that struck down Hawaiian-only voting in OHA elections.

The gathering for Abercrombie’s bill signing at Washington Place was telling. The celebrants inside were the “haves” among Hawaiians — legislators, OHA trustees, civic clubs, ali‘i trusts — who enjoy considerable power in the broad community and aren’t inclined to greatly rock the boat.

The Hawaiian “have nots” who have little power and want to get it by restoring a truly independent Hawaiian government were out on the sidewalk protesting the bill as a sellout of Hawaiian rights.

No sovereignty drive will achieve credibility until Hawaiians can organize a leadership and agenda on their own and sell it to a critical mass of the diverse population of people with native blood.

WTF on sandbar dogs?

June 23, 2011

Apparently there will be no serious sanctions filed against the 130-pound bull mastiff that mauled a woman on the Kaneohe Bay sandbar or the dog’s owner.

The unleashed animal was returned to the owner with a warning from the city under Honolulu’s dangerous dogs law, but no citation was issued or criminal case opened. The state says it’s a gray area whether its leash law applies on the sandbar.

Meantime, the 36-year-old victim of the unprovoked attack remained hospitalized for a second day in serious condition from injuries to her neck and head.

This is insanity. Dog owners who irresponsibly fail to control their animals need to be held accountable, and dogs that prove themselves vicious need to be taken out of circulation before they attack again.

The Legislature passed a slew of bills this session protecting animals from human cruelty, such as the new law Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed yesterday making it a felony to promote or participate in dogfights.

How about some tough and enforceable laws protecting humans from dangerous animals and the idiocy of their owners?

Fix system for appointing UH regents

June 21, 2011

The discussion following yesterday’s post on Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s requests for the resignations of board and commission members took a turn to the selection process for University of Hawai’i regents, so let’s stick with that for another day.

The governor used to appoint regents of his or her choosing, subject to confirmation by the Senate — similar to the process recently enacted for appointing the Board of Education.

But in a move to handcuff former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, the Legislature pushed through a constitutional amendment forcing the governor to pick regents from a list provided by a selection panel that can provide as few as two choices.

Then-UH President David McClain derided the selection panel as a “Noah’s Ark” of special interests, and the leading national organization for accrediting colleges and universities recommended strongly against the change as bad practice.

They were right and the system has been fraught with problems. In one instance, one of the two candidates provided Lingle by the selection panel withdrew and the Supreme Court ruled that she had no right to a replacement, leaving her with a single choice.

More recently, Abercrombie didn’t like the few candidates given him for two Big Island seats, but was turned down by the panel when he asked for more choices. He appointed from what he had and the Senate Education Committee rejected both nominees as ill qualified.

Defenders say the system prevents the concentration of too much power with the governor, but also complain about the sometimes low number and poor quality of applicants who send resumes to the selection panel.

We were far better off when the governor could go out and recruit qualified regents instead of being limited to the sometimes lackluster choices that the selection panel receives over the transom.

Our democratic tradition is an executive branch of government that appoints and a legislative branch that advises and consents, with ample checks and accountability on both sides.

These selection panels impose an advisory branch of government in between the governor and Legislature that only obscures the clean line of accountability that’s our best shot at keeping the system honest. Spreading the power around too thinly only guarantees that little gets done.

Lingle, Abercrombie and Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda all agree that the system for appointing UH regents is flawed and needs to be fixed.

The Legislature should attend to it next session.


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