HONOLULU — Hawaii is the only state without any form of referendum, recall and initiative on a statewide level, so House and Senate Republican leaders are asking the public to rally behind legislation they’ve jointly introduced to change that.
But will they get enough backing from the public to sway the state’s majority Democratic party, which holds all but one Senate seat and seven House seats in the 76 member body?
Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai-Diamond Head, believes so based on his discussions with several of the thousands of people who turned out at the state Capitol during the special session last fall called by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to legalize gay marriage.
“These measures have a new urgency based on the ‘not so special, special session,’ when a record 10,000 people came down to this Capitol and their unified cry was ‘let the people vote; let the people decide.’ And the Legislature basically turned a deaf ear to that,” he said.
“They learned to their chagrin that they had no initiative, no referendum, no recall, no term limits, and they learned that despite their numbers, despite their persistence, despite their pleas, they were basically ignored,” Slom said, noting the Legislature passed a gay marriage bill over public objections.
Slom noted that Hawaii has the lowest voter participation in the country, but he believes that’s because Aloha State residents don’t think their voice is heard.
“We want to do everything to make sure that voice does matter and we want to engage the public and make sure tools to get involved,” he said.
House Minority Leader Aaron Ling Johanson endorsed the House and Senate package of bills that he believes will energize direct initiative, giving citizens the ability to bypass their Legislature by placing proposed statutes and constitutional amendments on the ballot.
Deemed “a form of direct democracy,” citizen initiatives were first introduced in South Dakota in 1898. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports there are now 24 states that have added the initiative process to their constitutions, the most recent being Mississippi in 1992.
Hawaii’s House and Senate minority is also pushing for a referendum process, so popular measures can appear on the ballot after a voter petition drive.
“We agree wholeheartedly on referendum to allow people to vote on key fiscal and social issues,” Slom said. “For too long now, people have assumed we have all the answers in this building, although our voting record shows we certainly do not. We can use their help. We believe initiative and referendum will spur more interest, voting and participation.”
Democrats in the House and Senate have refused to hear bills that Slom and others have introduced in the past for such measures, but the minority hopes their renewed and unified effort gets traction.
Rep. Gene Ward, R-Hawaii Kai, points out that Hawaii hasn’t had a constitutional convention since 1978, where such a debate could take place. Republicans maintain that’s because those in power, including union leaders, have rallied against a public forum every 10 years when the public must vote on whether to hold another constitutional convention.
A private group, Citizens for Recall, is working in tandem with Republicans to get the legislation passed.
Co-founder Mike Palcic noted the Hawaii Constitution states that “all political power of this State is inherent in the people.”
“People have the responsibility and possess the power to influence the direction of governance. Legislators should allow room for constitutionally mandated public decision making,” he said.
“Every other state in the union has at least one of the following: recall, referendum, initiative or term limits. Many states have multiples. Hawaii has none,” Palcic said. “If the people of Hawaii vote to empower themselves to recall an elected official, to initiate or revoke laws on their own, or to limit the terms of service of government officials, the Legislature should not stand in the way.”
Full video of press conference produced by Michele Van Hessen