Posted tagged ‘Legislature’

Legislature should democratize itself before meddling in city elections

April 21, 2011

I’m inclined to agree with the Honolulu City Council’s unanimous resolution that the Legislature should butt out of the city’s electoral business and shelve a bill forcing “instant runoff” voting in municipal special elections.

Sponsoring lawmakers with backing from some civic groups say they’re worried that the winner-take-all elections to fill midterm vacancies usually draw large fields of candidates and produce winners who fall short of a majority.

HB 638 would require voters in city special elections to mark three ranked choices instead of voting for one candidate, and the candidates with the least votes would be eliminated until somebody ended up with a majority.

Council members say it’s a violation of home rule and other critics claim it’s a power play by the Democratic Party to give its candidates more bites at the apple after recent winner-take-all special elections were won by outsiders such as Congressman Charles Djou, Mayor Peter Carlisle and Councilman Tom Berg over the Democratic entries.

Whatever the motives, there’s no evidence of a serious problem that needs to be fixed; two of our last three presidents were elected with less than a majority in three-way races and Ben Cayetano was elected Hawai‘i governor that way.

The proposed Rube Goldberg system would add unnecessary complexities when it’s already difficult to get voters to participate in these elections and mark their ballots correctly.

If the Legislature wants to bring more democracy to replacing elected officials who leave office in midterm, it should worry first about reforming its own system on the state level.

Legislative vacancies aren’t filled by elections at all, but by party bosses putting up three candidates from which the governor must choose with no voter involvement.

A House-Senate conference committee is scheduled to markup the bill at 10:30 a.m. today in room 325.

Update: The conference was continued until Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. in room 325.

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Legislature proposes welfare for losing contractors

April 15, 2011

One of the more puzzling bills still alive in this year’s Legislature is HB 985, which allows the state to pay a “conceptual design fee” to some losing bidders on state contracts.

An amended version passed the Senate this week with only Sens. Donna Mercado Kim and Sam Slom objecting.

There have always been risks inherent in bidding on public works jobs, and there’s no legitimate public purpose in needlessly running up the cost of state contracts by paying off unsuccessful bidders for the cost of preparing their bids.

Rather, it seems a blatant attempt by lawmakers to give more of their political campaign donors a taste of the action at taxpayer expense — and at a time when the state is strapped for cash and others are in far greater need of a helping hand.

Hopefully this stinker will die in conference committee, where it’s headed after the House disagreed with Senate amendments.

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Matt Levi is back on TV with a new series, “Hawaii Investigates.”

The first show, which looks into problems at the Hawai‘i Youth Correctional Facility, made its debut last night on KGMB and repeats at 6:30 tonight on KHNL.

Levi, a private investigator and former investigative reporter, first took cameras into HYCF 26 years ago and returns to talk to staff, young offenders and judges to see if conditions have improved.

The good news, he reports, is that there’s been significant improvement in both philosophy and management — especially since the federal government threatened to shut down the facility in 2005.

The bad news, Levi says, is that the issues with many of those incarcerated aren’t fundamentally criminal in nature, but the kids remain there at a cost of $131,000 per year because the courts have few viable — and cheaper — treatment options available.

“Hawaii Investigates” is produced by Hawaii Reporter.

Legislators give up their fight for freebies — for now

April 1, 2011

Every year, the Legislature seems to have an issue that drains its energy with negative vibes — all to no avail in the end.

In 2011, it was SB 671, a gutted ethics bill that attempted to expand the freebies legislators could receive from special interests. It finally met an inglorious death yesterday with a deferral motion in the House Judiciary Committee.

It started when lawmakers’ noses got out of joint after the state Ethics Commission said they couldn’t accept free tickets to a dinner sponsored by a politically connected group with all kinds of interests before the Legislature.

The ruling was a fair reading of the 39-year-old gifts law, which bars legislators and other state officials from accepting freebies that can reasonably be inferred as intended to influence or reward them in the performance of their duties.

The first salvo by Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria would have gutted gift limits and allowed legislators to accept — or even solicit — dinners, trips and other gifts worth up to $200 from just about any special interest.

The bill whittled down by the Judiciary Committee and passed by the Senate was the most benign version offered, limiting the freebies to fundraising events of IRS 501(c)3 organizations (public charities and private foundations).

Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee said he’d abandoned the measure if the Ethics Commission opposed, promising, “Let me say that if the Ethics Commission decides this is a no-go, the chair of the committee will concur that it is a no-go.”

Assuming Hee was good to his word, the bill was dead when the Ethics Commission voted 3-1 to oppose it, but the House pushed ahead with its own version that restored all of the worst aspects of the original Senate bill by opening the door for business organizations, labor unions, trade associations and even foreign governments to ply them with gifts.

Though the House finally gave in to overwhelming public opposition and killed the bill, there’s no sign that lawmakers took any lesson as to what was wrong with it. The betting here is that it’ll be back in some future session when they find the timing more advantageous.

More honest talk needed on pot bills

March 30, 2011

It appears that all medical marijuana bills introduced in this year’s Legislature have died except SB 1458, which would allow a pilot state-licensed “compassion center” to dispense pot to those with licenses to smoke it for medical purposes.

This measure, which has been referred to the House Finance Committee, deserves to bite the dust along with the others until we get the marijuana discussion on a more honest grounding.

Clearly, the effort to expand the availability of medical marijuana has become less about compassion and more about filling state coffers by taxing it and opening a back door to legalizing pot for recreational use.

Kristen Consillio had an eye-opening piece in the Star-Advertiser about how lucrative the medical marijuana trade has become for some, even on its current limited scale.

Hawaii certificates for legal medical marijuana use are now at over 8,000, with more than half of the permits issued on the Big Island. The bulk of the prescriptions are written by a relatively small group of physicians, some of whom charge up to $300 for the service. It’s lucrative enough that doctors are flying in from the West Coast to get in on the action.

There’s little control over what constitutes an illness that benefits from pot, and the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program, says the bulk of prescriptions are being written for patients in their 20s and 30s, who are demographically the least likely to have the kinds of medical conditions associated with marijuana relief.

It adds up to strongly suggest that a large amount of supposedly medical marijuana ends up in recreational use.

I have no problem with those who legitimately need marijuana for medical conditions being able to use it. Nor do I have a problem with an honest discussion about whether we should legalize and tax marijuana for recreational use.

But I do have a problem with using one as a fig leaf to cover the other, skipping the due diligence on the big-picture implications for our state, in order to feed the greed of marijuana suppliers looking to expand their business and lawmakers hungry for tax revenues.

Poker bill bets on a flop

March 28, 2011

A bill to make Hawai‘i a mecca for live and online poker tournaments seems to be the last gasp of gambling advocates in the Legislature after the apparent failure of of casinos in Waikiki, shipboard gambling, bingo on Hawaiian Homes lands and other gaming measures.

SB 755, which originally passed the Senate as a measure to help kids buy school supplies before being gutted by two House committees, is probably a non-starter in terms of attracting significant poker business to Hawai‘i.

Trying to pass off poker as a game of skill rather than gambling is dubious, the vigorish for the state that legislators are demanding from poker promoters appears exorbitant and the interstate commerce issues are tricky.

But if the bill passes, it’ll no longer be said that Hawai‘i is one of only two states without gambling, which will provide a foot in the door that gives more hope to promoters of other forms of gambling.

Gaming advocates are seizing on the panic that the crisis in Japan will drive the Hawai‘i economy back into deep recession and further deplete state revenues.

But the fact is that any gambling operation would take years to start generating significant revenue and would contribute absolutely nothing to solving our current woes.

Not to mention that gambling is a poor economic hedge against recession. Nevada, which depends more on gambling than any other state, has been one of the hardest hit. Do legislators seriously think that Japanese who are staying home as their country recovers from a devastating blow, would come if we had slot machines?

Gambling would change the fabric of our local society and reshape our visitor industry in ways we don’t fully understand.

If we go there, it should be after careful consideration in calmer times — not as an opportunistic quick hit by those lacking real ideas for digging out of our economic sinkhole.

Time for legislators to back off on ethics loopholes

March 25, 2011

One of the most specious arguments in the debate over SB 671 is the one offered by House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro that rules governing the gifts public officials can receive from special interests need to be loosened because Hawai‘i’s ethics law hasn’t been updated in 39 years.

For one thing, Hawai‘i’s law is viewed as one of the more lenient and would likely have to be tightened — not loosened — if a serious review were undertaken in line with common understandings about official propriety that have evolved in the last 39 years.

The coverage of this bill around the world, documented by Larry Geller in Disappeared News, is because it’s a “man bites dog” story in which the Hawai‘i Legislature is headed in the opposite direction of public sensibilities here and elsewhere.

The other reason the Oshiro argument lacks merit is that basic ethics are pretty much timeless. How often do the Ten Commandments, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or The Five Pillars of Islam need tweaking? When was the last time the Golden Rule was updated?

Our current law is based on the simple and sound ethic that public officials should not solicit or accept gifts intended to influence or reward them in the performance of their duties.

In an ideal world, that would say it all and lawmakers would exercise common sense in erring on the side of good ethics.

That they instead feel entitled to create loopholes that render the law meaningless in order to feed their hunger for freebies tells us that the Ethics Commission is exactly right about the need to get more specific in spelling out what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Suggestions that Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo could be a target of retaliation by lawmakers for not playing ball are alarming.

After numerous failed attempts to finesse the wording, legislators need to recognize that what they want to do isn’t going to fly and back off.

Legislators fight for the right to freeload (cont’d)

March 23, 2011

The one thing you can count on with our Legislature is that bad ideas never die, especially when it comes to legislators taking care of themselves.

So it is with SB 671, a shameless attempt by lawmakers to render themselves ethically free to accept gifts, travel and free meals from those seeking to buy their favor.

The original version drafted by Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria would have allowed legislators and other public officials 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.

After a public outcry, the version that passed the Senate was stripped down to limit the gifts lawmakers could accept to free tickets to fundraisers of IRS 501(c)(3) organizations (public charities and private foundations).

The state Ethics Commission voted last week to oppose even that, noting that charities have business before the Legislature and if lawmakers want to attend their functions they can pay their own way like everybody else.

When the bill got to the House, Majority Leader Blake Oshiro amended it again to throw travel and other gifts back into the mix of allowable freebies and expand the definition of “charities” that could gift legislators to once again include nominally nonprofit lobbying organizations, labor unions, trade associations and business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Board of Realtors.

“Invitations could be accepted even where it reasonably could be inferred that the invitation is offered to influence or reward the legislator or state employee,” said Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo.

The Ethics Commission interprets current law to bar meals and gifts worth more than $25 in the absence of a clear public benefit.

Oshiro’s main motivation for loosening the rules seems to be that he’s tired of fielding calls from ethically challenged colleagues whining that they can’t have their freebies. Poor babies.

The House Judiciary Committee put off further consideration until next week.

Will a higher threshold make the pension tax palatable?

March 9, 2011

It’ll be interesting to see if the proposal in the Legislature to tax pensions continues to draw the political ire of seniors now that the House has set the income threshold at nearly three times higher than originally proposed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Hawai‘i  is one of only 10 states that don’t tax employer-provided pensions, and Abercrombie raised a fair point about whether that should change given the state’s precarious financial situation.

But he set the income threshold way too low at $37,500 for singles and $75,000 for married couples, which would have taken a big chunk out of the anticipated retirement income of middle-class citizens who could ill afford the loss.

The governor also failed to properly index the tax, which would have placed an unfair burden on those who fell just over the limit.

The House removed a lot of the immediate sting by raising the income threshold to $100,000 for singles and $200,000 for marrieds.

Rep. Isaac Choy, an accountant who is respected for his facility with numbers, estimated the tax will apply at this point to only 3,000 high-income taxpayers who can afford it, and the rest will have 15 to 20 years to prepare before inflation pulls them into the grip of the tax.

What remains to be seen as the measure moves to the Senate is whether nervous retirees and those soon to retire — a politically potent bunch — will be relieved by the reprieve or if they’ll continue to view any new tax on pension income as an ominous threat.

Senators fight for the right to freeload

March 8, 2011

Update: Final reading on SB 671 was delayed 48 hours after the Senate amended it again today to limit the free tickets public officials can accept to fundraisers of IRS 501(c)(3) organizations (public charities and private foundations). Language was deleted that would have also allowed free admission to events sponsored by non-charitable tax-exempt groups such as chambers of commerce, trade associations and labor unions.

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The hearty appetite of Hawai‘i legislators for free meals and other goodies is an issue that won’t seem to die this session.

Common Cause put out an alert that a new version of SB 671, which it dubs the “Gifts Law,” is up for final reading in the Senate today.

The latest draft strips out language that would have allowed lawmakers and other public officials to accept or even solicit gifts worth up to $200 from just about anybody seeking to influence their actions.

But the new version would still allow legislators to accept free admission to charitable events, even if the provider of the gift isn’t the host of the event.

Presumably, the freebies would apply not only to the ubiquitous fundraising dinners, but also to charitable events such as golf tournaments, wine tastings and fashion shows.

And the legislation broadly defines a “charitable entity” to go well beyond the social service organizations we usually think of charities to include business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, trade associations and labor unions — all of which have lobbying interests before the Legislature that are far from charitable.

It’s a back door that allows special interests of virtually all kinds to wine and dine legislators from whom they are seeking officials favors, and there’s no credible argument that it’s in the public interest to allow such freebies to be offered or accepted.

Also difficult to swallow is the aversion our lawmakers have to paying their own way into charitable events like everybody else.

It doesn’t even have to come out of their own pockets; they pushed a campaign spending law amendment a few years years ago to allow elected officials to cover charitable donations from their campaign funds.

The Clayton Hee show always entertains

March 4, 2011

The drama over William Aila Jr.’s confirmation as director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources was classic Clayton Hee.

The Senate Judiciary chairman single-handedly delayed the vote on the popular Waianae harbormaster and Hawaiian activist, causing a flurry of letter-writing by Aila’s friends, family and co-workers in support of the nomination.

Hee attacked Aila’s character and integrity on the Senate floor because he didn’t disclose his commercial fishing license and signed off on O’ahu rail despite concerns about Hawaiian burials. Interest groups involved in those issues mostly supported Aila to be chief custodian of Hawai‘i’s  environmental resources.

When the emotional speechifying was done, Hee joined the other 22 senators present in voting unanimously to confirm Aila and then engaged in an extended hugfest with the nominee.

You have to like Hee for the passion of his beliefs and the showmanship he brings to Senate deliberations, but it can be hard to figure his logic and motivations.

Sometimes, he seems to just have a need to throw his weight around. In this case, there was speculation after his friend Neil Abercrombie was elected governor that he wanted the top DLNR job for himself.

Hee’s passions have brought him down in flames twice before as Judiciary chairman. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s learned to keep tightly enough bolted to the deck to hold onto the job this time.


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