By Keli’i Akina
Hawaii’s political leaders are looking for ways to rebuild trust with the public, following this week’s shocking and disappointing corruption and bribery charges filed against two Hawaii state legislators.
It would be unfair, of course, for us to hold all of our legislators accountable for the alleged actions of just the two. However, with so many important decisions happening out of the public eye, we can understand how this could have happened.
In the effort to regain public confidence, some legislators are seeking guidancefrom the state Ethics Commission. But that only addresses part of the problem. To truly root out any hint of corruption and underhanded dealing, the Legislature must make a sincere effort to be more transparent in all of its practices.
The Hawaii Supreme Court’s recent “gut and replace” decision ended one questionable legislative practice, but there remain many other ways that our state lawmakers can avoid the public eye.
As veteran observers of the Legislature know, it’s rare to see outright votes against a particular piece of legislation. Often, bills are passed unanimously with strange amendments, like a date that makes the law effective 50 years in the future, then quietly killed or altered in a later committee.
At times, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly why a bill was killed or who was for or against it. Such things happen behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the public is left to piece together the clues and try to guess why.
When the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii wanted to learn why last year’s bill to restrict the governor’s emergency powers died at the last minute in conference committee, we received contrary accounts and heard objections to the bill that had already been addressed in its earlier versions.
The lack of open disagreement in the Hawaii Legislature could be interpreted as a sign of “collegiality.” But the effect is that the real business of politics — deciding what bills get heard, what will pass and what compromises will be made — happens pretty much in secret.
When sweeping changes such as this year’s minimum-wage increase sail through one house of the Legislature without a word of argument or a single “no” vote, one begins to wonder whether the public really has a voice in the Legislature at all.
Is this a result of Hawaii’s one-party dominance? That could be part of it. But more important is that these practices are so ingrained that the problem transcends political parties.
The problem is a lack of transparency and accountability.
This isn’t about partisanship. So long as our politicians can hand out favors through tailored regulations or promises of hefty contracts, we probably will always have corruption, no matter which party or parties are dominant.
Short of radically changing the focus of government, the next best solution is greater transparency, to help ensure greater political accountability. We need more sunshine in our Legislature, and we need it now.
Our elected and unelected state officials can help make that happen, through legislation and rule-making.
At the Legislature, our lawmakers also can stop rushing bills through hearings so they can hammer out secret deals in conference committees.
They need to demonstrate integrity and courage by going on the record with their positions and voting against bills they disagree with, in committees or on the floor.
They need to stop leaving so much power in the hands of the committee chairs to hear, pass or kill bills.
We, the people, have a responsibility here as well. We must demand better behavior and hold our elected officials accountable for their actions — or lack thereof. If we want more transparency, we must be active and engaged at the Legislature.
Do not forget that accountability begins at the ballot box. We are the ones who have endorsed the current system by electing those who are unwilling to challenge it. If we want change, we must be clear about the need for reform — and demonstrate through our votes what will happen if those demands are not met.
Keli’i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.