‘Recused’ or ‘Excused’ at the Hawaii State Legislature: Does it Matter?

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Sen. Sam Slom - Photo courtesy of Mel Ah Ching Productions

BY SAM SLOM – There are many interesting things going on at your 2011 State Legislature (and you should become more involved because from ethics to taxes, these issues involve you and your family).


One obscure item has to do with voting.

When a vote is taken in the State Senate, whether in committee, or on the senate floor, the standard voting sheet has spaces for the following responses:  “Aye,” “Aye (WR),” With Reservations (still a “yes” vote), “Nay,” or “Excused.” Excused means you are absent.

There is also a seldom used (very seldom) procedure when a Senator asks the committee chair or Senate President if he or she is “in conflict” of a specific bill because of involvement with the subject matter, organization, or individual to be voted upon. If the answer is “yes,” the Senator should not vote.

Good news! Over the past several decades, no Senator has been found to be “in conflict,” of anything (even though any woman on the street would agree there IS a conflict) and has been allowed to vote.

Last year, when Hawaii Reporter publisher Malia Zimmerman and I were actively engaged in trying to buy and save The Honolulu Star Bulletin, several resolutions to the owner of the Bulletin emerged from the Senate. I declared publicly a conflict of interest on these measures —I was actually told there was no conflict and I could vote — both in committee and on the senate floor.

I chose to declare myself “recused” from both votes, and requested that my position be so noted on the voting sheet. This caused a procedural problem because of the limited allowable responses on the voting sheet.

The Senate wanted to declare me “excused” (absent). But I wasn’t absent and have fought that decision since last year. Last month, I again recused myself during a hearing involving a $40,000,000 Special Purpose Revenue Bond  (SPERB) for St. Louis School. My son Spencer is a Senior at St. Louis.

A debate again ensued and I was again marked “excused.” Not “recused.” Huh?

Then, earlier this week, Senator Jill Tokuda, informed the Ways & Means Committee of a possible conflict on a matter dealing with Sand Island lessees and she asked to be “recused.” Again, the form doesn’t allow that so another “excused” of someone who was not absent was recorded.

My point?  It would be very easy to amend the form when reprinted and in the meantime, note that it was a recusal not an absence. That’s the truth and that is accurate. Maybe that will encourage more lawmakers to recuse themselves on those matters where they may have a direct, or perceived, financial interest and conflict.

If this voting procedure is too big an issue to resolve, how can any voter really expect the legislature to tell them what to do, what to eat and who to marry?