Tuesday, April 05, 2011
Watchdog barks: Friday night swindle by House Finance committee
by Larry Geller
It seems that when we talk about government these days, we find ourselves talking about budget. Where to cut, where to tax. Where to steal from, the struggle to make someone else pay the bill. No harm in that—I wish we had the guts to make the banks repay our largess. But I digress.
Hawaii’s legislature is engaged is the same shell game as other states, no doubt. This does not mean that we should not hold them to following the rules.
Now, here is a case where House leadership has set rules that permit the public to be swindled out of appropriate public notice. The House Finance committee has done just that. They have climbed through the loophole the House created for them to give the public less than what it needs to react to their actions.
Check it out below. A hearing notice was posted after hours, at 5:45 p.m. on Friday, for a hearing to be held on Monday. And the bills FIN will consider are among the most controversial before the Legislature today.
Now, this is not technically against the rules. Remember that loophole. Here it is:
The House Rule:
11.5. Committee Meetings.
(1) Meetings, including decision-making sessions, of standing committees shall be public. Notice shall be publicly posted or announced on the House floor at least forty-eight hours prior to the meeting. Except for notices posted by the Committee on Finance, notice shall be posted before 4:30 p.m. on the last day of the work week for a hearing to be held on the following Monday or Tuesday. Notice of meetings may be shortened at the discretion of the Speaker upon request on the House floor by a chair or vice-chair and upon good cause shown.
In contrast, the Senate Rule:
Rule 21 Meetings of Committees.
Meetings, including decision-making sessions, of leadership committees appointed by the President, and Standing Committees shall be public provided that meetings in executive session may be allowed in such exceptional circumstances when committee discussion could unfairly damage the reputation of individuals or where there is a legal question concerning a bill.
Notice of meetings and decision-making sessions shall include the number and title of the bills or resolutions, and brief descriptions and committee referrals of each of the subject matters to be covered, and shall be publicly posted by first referral committees at least 72 hours before their meetings and by subsequent referral committees at least 48 hours before their meetings, no later than 4:00 p.m. on the last work day of the week, provided that these notice requirements may be waived with the approval of the President upon good cause shown. The 72 hour notice requirement is waived for the initial decision-making meeting for short form bills.
Nor are the bills set for the hearing today insignificant, stuff we might ignore. The very first one concerns the controversial topic of taxing pensions, something that has not been done in Hawaii. It’s a hot topic. Maybe AARP would want to send its troops over to testify, just as an example.
That bill is a gut-and-replace, meaning that its language will not have had the three hearings in each house that the state constitution requires.
The last bill concerns exemptions from the excise tax, again, an extremely controversial measure. In between there is a renewable energy bill.
This stealth maneuver is unbefitting a democratic legislature, even if they have bent the rules to accommodate the ruse.
What’s next for these bills? You can be sure that House leadership wants to pass them. The next step would be conference committee for any bill changed substantially since it left the Senate. That’s another kind of swindle, in which any testimony given up to that point can be disregarded. All decisions are made behind closed doors (I do miss the phrase “smoke-filled rooms”). What legislators want is what legislators get.
Sure, we need to find a way to pull Hawaii through its budgetary crisis, but this should not require conducting the business of state out of view of the public.