Friday, March 06, 2009


Running on empty at 4 a.m.

by Larry Geller

For those who think we have a democratic form of government in Hawaii, I invite you to ponder for a moment how it works, and see if you don’t agree that reform is badly needed.

I was just deciding whether to delete the March 4 video of the House Finance Committee midnight hearings, and idly fast-forwarded through it. I was amazed that Finance Committee members, who in my view always have a particular responsibility to weigh the testimony and make the tough decisions correctly, appeared so unfamiliar with some of the measures they were asked to vote on. And yet they voted.

Scroll down or click here for the video of the vote on SB215, the campaign finance bill. It seems that Chair Marcos Oshiro didn’t mention the new contribution limits to his committee members. They had to give him the third degree to learn the substance of what he was about to call a vote on. The new amendment was concocted in some back room somewhere and pulled out of the hat just before the vote.

If committee members had copies in front of them, they would not have to ask questions. If individual committee members didn’t ask the right questions, they would not know what the bill was about when the vote was called. A new $50,000 limit is kind of a key detail. Previously, it was $1,000. Someone had to ask him about that, it was not explained as it should have been.

I conclude that they didn’t have copies and that the Chair seemed to want to give as little information as possible. If they really were given copies, someone let me know. I’m going by what I see on the screen.

If the Chair wanted his committee members to be informed, he would have given them advance copies, right? Then they wouldn’t have had to ask those key questions, right? If you were chair, you would make copies for everyone and distribute them in advance, right?

“Due diligence,” though it is a legal term, is close to what I think is missing entirely from what I saw several times in that video. (“Generally, due diligence refers to the care a reasonable person should take before entering in an agreement or transaction with another party.”) IMHO, committee members should refuse to vote on something they are not familiar with because they have not been given the information they need to do their due diligence.

I’ll give another example. I fast-forwarded to decision making on the 4:30 a.m. raid on the Tobacco Settlement Special Fund, HB1731. Yes, this was also done in the dark of night. Rep. Ward had to tease the percentages of its proposed re-distribution out of the Chair. The numbers were not in front of the committee members. Rep. Ward should not have had to do the math himself and point out that it didn’t add up. At the very end, during the vote, someone said something into the open mike about “another mistake.”

Who knows what else was in there that they did not know to ask about. And of course, the public was not present in the room at that crazy hour of the morning to groan or just bear witness to this. The raid, if this bill becomes law, will probably result in the end or severe curtailment of several programs. People doing good work will lose their jobs. Medical costs to the state could rise later on.

In view of the current economic downturn perhaps it’s even more important that members of the two legislative finance committees know what is going on. But members of the House Finance Committee have been kept in the dark just as we ordinary citizens have, and then they are asked to vote. We lose our right to representation when they do that. Or perhaps I should say that we are not being properly represented when they do that.

It’s not right. Critical bills are being decided by leadership and the details are withheld from your elected representatives.

I’m very disappointed not to have found, on the video, any objection to the entire process. If any House member has objected to this process and I’ve just missed it, I’d welcome learning what happened.

Good government advocates might put this on their list. We are entitled to representation and we’re not getting it. I can’t vote the Speaker in or out, yet he allows bills to be kept secret from my own representative year after year.

Over on the Senate side I noticed last session that proposed amendments were posted on the Capitol website. There’s no reason that the House cannot do the same, and make them available to their own members and to the public a reasonable time before the hearing. Say, 48 hours. That would allow us to communicate our opinions to our elected representatives if we so wished, and it would enable them to read and study the amendments and then vote responsibility.

What I saw on that video troubles me greatly, and I wonder if I’m alone.


I'm afraid your sensibility is accurate -- and we are truly chumps in the political process. The only fix I can see would be more citizen participation -- emailing our elected representatives and letting them know that we, at least, are paying attention to the issues AND will share our concerns with other constituents. Mahalo for your efforts.

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