Legislative Madness

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In the sports world, we have “March Madness.”  Last week in this space, we wrote about “Credit Madness.”  Now, lest we miss the forest for the trees, let’s discuss madness at the Legislature in general.

A month ago, Civil Beat interviewed Sen. Stanley Chang, who had introduced Senate Bill 149 with a constitutional amendment to have the Legislature meet year-round, like the Honolulu City Council.  At the Council, the schedule “permitted time for deliberation, consultation with stakeholders and accessibility for the public,” he said.  At the Legislature, on the other hand?  “It’s just four months of chaos – it was very striking.”  (Sen. Chang’s bill was heard and passed by Senate Judiciary, but hit a wall when it got to Ways and Means.  It’s dead for this session.)

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Let me give you a little bit of how that looks from my perspective.

The Tax Foundation of Hawaii follows bills that deal with taxation or public finance.  This year, there were more than 3,100 bills introduced at the Legislature.  The Legislature normally considers around 2,500 to 2,700 bills a session, so this year’s crop of bills was huge.  Typically, we select about 10% of those bills to follow.  This year was no different.  We were following about 300 bills.

At the start of the session, bills are normally considered by committees that concentrate on one or more specific areas, such as Agriculture, Education, Energy and the Environment, or Housing.  We call these “subject matter committees.”  The House and Senate have 33 committees between them.  Of those, there are 27 subject matter committees.  Six have a wide purview (Judiciary, Money, and Commerce committees in both chambers) and usually are the last committees to which bills get referred.

During the first couple of weeks in the Legislature’s 60-day calendar, most of the action occurs in subject matter committees, and with dozens of committees trying to hear bills and move them at the same time, there isn’t much breathing room.  During this period, for example, we were getting 30 hearing notices on bills we were following … on Friday afternoon.  Testimony on bills needs to be submitted 24 hours before the hearing, and a number of the bills were to be heard on Monday.  So much for our nights and weekends.  When the work week rolled around, it wasn’t uncommon for multiple hearings to be held at the same time.  We were triple-set or quadruple-set for a few of them.  Thank goodness that the Legislature allows testimony via Zoom, so we could zip back and forth between hearings as needed.

In the second two-week period, the bills we follow are considered by House Finance and Senate Ways and Means.  The Senate won’t give a bill a hearing if it was already heard in a subject matter committee; it allows folks to submit written testimony only, and then meets to make decisions on the bills.  In the House, the chair doesn’t crack the whip quite as hard, and generally gives testifiers the time they need and accommodates many questions by Finance members.  As a result, many of the Finance hearings start far later than they are scheduled.  I remember logging in for a 2:00 PM hearing and not recognizing any of the bills being heard – the committee was still on their 11:00 AM agenda.  As a result, some hearings continued well after sunset (I pressed the logout button, but legislators, their aides, and a number of other testifiers attending the hearings didn’t have that luxury).

The next four weeks of the session are somewhat similar to the first four weeks, but there are fewer bills because lots of bills have fallen by the wayside.

The last couple of weeks in the session are the scariest.  That is when the Conference Committees meet, ostensibly to resolve differences between the House and Senate but only the folks on the inside know for sure what really goes on.  The public isn’t invited to most of the deliberations, and only is called in when both sides are ready to announce a result and hold a vote. 

In any event, Sen. Chang certainly has a point, and we perhaps could be thinking about ways to make the legislative process less chaotic and more accessible.

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