The debate rages on again in the state Legislature this year over how much power a committee chair should have, particularly in the conference committees where members of both Houses, led by Democrat-only committee chairs, meet beginning next week to resolve differences between bill versions.

According Senate rules, a single committee chair can unilaterally veto a bill in a conference committee, even if all other members and chairs involved with the conference committee hearing the bill, are in favor of it.

Some elected officials in the state Legislature believe that kind of unilateral voting power just isn’t right, but so far, they are in the minority.

Sen. Les Ihara, D-Kaimuki, rallied 11 of the 25 state Senators to sign a resolution amending Senate Rule 23(3) to require a conference committee to report on a measure when a majority of committee members of both chambers concur in the report. So far, those supporting the equal voting proposal by Ihara are Democrat Senators Roz Baker, Suzie Chun-Oakland, Gary Hooser, Carol Fukunaga and David Ige; and all Republican Senators including Sam Slom, Fred Hemmings, Bob Hogue, Gordon Trimble and Paul Whalen.

The resolution, which needs the support of two more Senators to pass, calls for equality, fairness and a democratic process in the conference committees by making each vote count as one vote, rather than allowing the chair to trump the process with a single vote or decision.

However, Democrat Senators in leadership are holding on tight to their committee veto abilities, refusing to give up their right to trump other Senators and House members on their conference committee with their power-packed vote. All Democrats, they are Sen. President Robert Bunda, Sen. Vice President Donna Kim, Sen. Majority Leader Colleen Hanabusa, Sen. Majority Leader Cal Kawamoto, Majority Caucus Leader Shan Tsutsui, Sen. Ways and Means Chair Brian Taniguchi, Labor Chair Brian Kanno, Consumer Protection Chair Ron Menor, Land and Water Chair Lorraine Inouye, Education Chair Norman Sakamoto, Energy and Environment Chair Kalani English and Sens. Willie Espero, Russell Kokubun and Melodie Aduja.

Senators are expected to vote today on the resolution during the regular scheduled session beginning at 11:30 a.m. on the Senate floor.

“The voters of each senatorial district have a right to equal representation in the Senate, which means that each Senator has one vote, no more and no less,” Ihara says.

Ihara points out a conference chair’s unequal voting power can occur when one of two chairs of a Senate conference committee can defeat an amendment to a bill by voting “nay,” even though all of four other senate conferees, including a chair, vote “aye.”

“That makes the single “nay” vote of the Senate chair equal to four “aye” votes of the other Senators on the conference committee,” Ihara says.

Ihara says most conference committees have two chairs; thus making the chair veto absolute as only a majority of chairs can override a conference chair veto, even if all committee members vote for the bill.

He added money committee chairs are not affected by this resolution, since they need veto power to fulfill their duty to pass a balanced budget.

House Minority Leader Galen Fox also is expected to introduce a similar resolution in the House, in an effort to force House Majority Leadership to change its same rule that allows chairs to unilaterally kill a bill. Fox could not be reached for comment in time for this story.

”’Pertinent documents on this issue are available at:”’ http://www.newhawaii.org

”Senate Resolution Amending Senate Rule 23(3) to require a conference committee to report on a measure when a majority of committee members of both chambers concur in the report.”

*WHEREAS, equality and fairness are fundamental principles of democracy that Hawaii citizens expect to be practiced in the state legislature, particularly regarding the voting rights, rules, and procedures affecting each legislator; and

*WHEREAS, the voters of each senatorial district have a right to equal representation in the senate, which means that each senator has one vote, no more and no less; and

*WHEREAS, rule 8-b of the 2003 conference committee procedures contravenes the principle of equal voting power because it allows a conference chair to veto the passage of legislation in most situations; and

*WHEREAS, the relevant text of rule 8-b that provides enhanced voting power to a conference committee chair is, as follows: “To report a measure out of Conference Committee in amended form, a majority of the chairs for each respective chamber…must vote in favor of the proposed amendments…”; and

*WHEREAS, a conference chair’s unequal voting power under rule 8-b is illustrated by this example: one of two chairs of a senate conference committee can defeat an amendment to a bill by voting “nay”, even though all of four other senate conferees, including a chair, vote “aye” – which makes the single “nay” vote of the senate chair equal to four “aye” votes of the other senators on the conference committee; and

*WHEREAS, Senate Rule 86(1) provides that the Rules of the Senate may be amended by a majority vote of the members of the Senate, after one day’s notice is provided; now, therefore,

*BE IT RESOLVED by the Senate of the Twenty-Second Legislature of the State of Hawaii, Regular Session of 2003, that Senate Rule 24(3) is hereby amended to read as follows (proposed changes underlined and deletions bracketed):

*(3) A Conference Committee shall [not] report upon the matter referred [unless] when a majority of the members of each house appointed by their respective presiding officer have concurred in the report. Any conference committee procedure that adds or detracts from this requirement shall be void.

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