Closing Door at the Legislature (Jean Aoki)|
State Council Meeting May 18: Great Discussion and Firm Resolve (Grace Furukawa)
At Last, a Maui League (Grace Furukawa)
Importance of Campaign Funding Reform
Environment Committee Planning
Leaguer Josh Cooper Honored
State Environment Committee
Judicial Independence Project (Jean Aoki)
Election Debates on Olelo Stations
Local Chapter News Clips
Saunders Hall Dedicated
Our First Gubernatorial Panel of the Year
The Closing Door at the Legislature
A few years back, I believe I raved about how open our Legislature had become to the public. We applauded the telecasting of legislative proceedings, and the permanent funding of the Access Room so that ordinary citizens can have access to legislative information and the tools for preparing testimonies.
We commended the standing committees for the way hearings were conducted with due deference to all testifiers. With some prodding, rules were adopted that required quorums and open voting of the committee members present to decide on the disposition of legislation before the committees. Formerly, the chairs could decide and get the signatures of committee members later, but now we could hold all legislators accountable.
Even the conference committees where the differences between House and Senate versions of bills are reconciled were opened to the public when the Republican Party filed a suit, and the State Attorney General's office released an opinion that conference committees were held to quorum requirements and open voting. That was progress.
A Shift Backward
It is in the committee hearings and conference committees where we are encountering problems. Last year, we highlighted the practice of deferral: after committee hearings on bills, the chair can defer decision making indefinitely, and this action of the chair does not require the vote of committee members. This practice didn't just begin last year, but we were confronted with its impact when it was used to kill our election campaign public funding bill. We had the votes to get it out of committee (at least the Senators on the committees involved assured us of their support), but the bill was never voted on. It was just deferred to oblivion. League President Maile Bay sent a letter to Senate President Bunda asking him to adhere to the provision in Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure that the Legislature uses as its guide. It reads, "A majority vote of the members voting is required for the adoption of a motion to postpone indefinitely."
To no avail.
Two years ago, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President agreed to give the chairs "veto" powers over conference committee decisions. All chairs had to agree on the final negotiated version of a bill before it could be reported out for final decision by both Houses even if all of the other conference committee members approved of the bill. This practice was roundly criticized in the media and by many legislators as well as the public.
This year, the new joint Senate-House rules on conference committee procedures were amended so that it looks as though improvements have been made; however on closer analysis, not much has changed. Unless there are at least three conference chairs for each house on each bill in conference, chairs still, in effect, retain their veto powers. I will spare you the details.
At the end of testimonies on any one bill, chairs do allow those who have not sent in written testimony to present it anyway, but you need to be present at the right time. With hearings scheduled in three different rooms, I would scurry from the first room to the next, only to find that I had lost the opportunity to be heard on several bills. In years past, if you missed testifying before one committee, you could testify before the second committee hearing the same bill. The money committees in both houses have final jurisdiction over bills that have financial implications.
In the House, the Finance Committee always held hearings. The Senate Ways & Means Committee didn't accept any oral testimony this year on the grounds that it had been heard before by one or more committees, and it only sometimes accepted written testimony. If this trend continues, we will have to resort more to lobbying the individual legislators.
To make matters worse, hearings are scheduled even before we have managed to gather all the bills that are of interest to us. Looking through the list of all the bills that have been introduced requires days of looking through each day's referral list. When bills are scheduled for hearings while we are still scrambling to gather them, it means extra trips to the print shop, and doing in a great hurry whatever research needs to be done. It would be helpful for legislators as well as the public if there could be a recess for organizing the bills and doing some advance research on some of the more important measures.
A Model for Openness
Sometime toward the end of 2001, I started monitoring the meetings of the Hawaii Employer/Union Health Benefits Trust Fund for my retiree organization. This Trust Fund is scheduled to replace the current system by July of 2003. This is part of last year's health benefits reform bill. The Board of Trustees is made up of 5 individuals representing the employers (state and county governments) and 5 union representatives (including one retiree). The reform bill was passed in spite of great opposition by the unions who currently manage their own individual health funds using contributions from the state and counties for each employee and a portion of the premium fees from the employees.
At the first meeting Ethics Commission's Dan Mollway discussed the Code of Ethics, and the Office of Information Practice's Moya Gray went over the Open Meetings laws. The trustees seem to have taken those principles to heart, and I have, during the course of these months, orally and in writing, complimented the board on its openness, its generosity in sharing information with the audience, and willingness to listen to the public's comments and answer any of our questions as part of their deliberations. The chairman of the Rules Committee even scheduled a special meeting just for retiree representatives to clear up a misunderstanding about one of the rules. The board and the committees have been very considerate of the audience, and all executive sessions have, so far, been moved to the end of the agenda.
This is a board made up of potential adversaries unions versus the State and Counties building the foundation for the implementation of a unified health fund system which takes away from the unions the authority to administer their own members' health funds. The tension felt at first have largely dissipated, and I am impressed by the civility and cordiality among the board members. Is it possible that the open meetings attended by from 12 to 30 plus representatives of insurance companies, care providers, unions, retiree organizations, etc. have anything to do with it?
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