Sunday, January 29, 2023

Sunlight is the best disinfectant: Political will needed for true ethics reform

A fresh new populist governor, brand-new legislative session and a comprehensive roadmap from a blue-ribbon panel showing us how to get from Point A to Point B. Throw in some political will, backbone and a little intestinal fortitude and we have the makings for real ethics reform this year.

 Some might say the recent rash of arrests that sent public leaders, policy setters, rank and file government bureaucrats and a couple state legislators to federal prison was a wake-up call. I won’t bother naming the guilty; you’ve all heard the stories.

 It’s hard to set and implement public policy when bad actors at all levels of state and county government are filling their pockets rather than their constitutional mandates.

 It’s a wakeup call, but don’t hit that snooze button quite yet.

 Federal prosecutors have set the ball rolling. People were shocked/not shocked when the nefarious dealings were exposed. The angst is still fresh in people’s minds.

 Props to House Speaker Scott Saiki for recognizing the deep-seated malaise that has led so many to further distrust a government that wasn’t all that trusted to begin with. Last year, he immediately did what government does best: He commissioned a study.

 But rather than any old study – you can’t swing a dead cat at the Capitol without knocking the dust off hundreds of shelf-bound studies -- Saiki peopled that Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct with some hard-hitters and go-getters and named retired Associate Judge Dan Foley of the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals to chair it.

 The result? A 396-page report with 31 proposals, plus the accompanying bill language, all set for the 2023 Legislature that convened Jan. 18. The full report can be accessed on the House webpage under Special Committees,

 Five of the commission's 15 recommendations in an interim report were passed by the 2022 Legislature and became law, including a tightening of campaign finance laws, required ethics training for all legislators and state employees and prohibition of campaign fundraisers for elected state and county officials during legislative sessions. Two others, capping fees for access to public records and requiring electronic audio or video recordings of public board meetings be maintained as a public record and posted, were passed by the Legislature but vetoed by then-Gov. David Ige.

 The 2023 list is long, but it can be divided into some broad categories. The recommendations include proposals to further open public records to public scrutiny, to limit legislators' terms in office to 16 years, to strengthen investigation and prosecution of fraud, including prohibiting those convicted from seeking public office for 10 years and to give the Campaign Spending Commission more power.

 In addition, measures boosting openness and transparency are proposed, including greater disclosure about lobbyists' involvement with lawmakers and lawmaking, allowing immediate viewing of testimony as soon as it is submitted, continuing the live-streaming of legislative sessions that began during the COVID-19 lockdown and requiring explanations when measures are not scheduled for hearings by committee chairmen or when they are deferred indefinitely.

 The vetoed bills are back in action as well.

 With Jan. 25 being the last day for bill introductions, bills are slowly trickling in, but so far, only a few from the so-called Foley Commission have been entered into the system. Never fear. It’s standard practice for bills covering similar measures to be added onto during the ongoing negotiations of legislative leaders. In the words of Yogi Berra, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. There’s still a lot of horse-trading until sine die.

 Despite the urgency of these proposals in the eyes of the public, legislative leaders so far don’t seem to be embracing them. Saiki mentioned the issue after a list of other priorities during his opening remarks last week: “This House takes reset and reform seriously and will take up the recommendations in earnest this session.”

 Senate President Ron Kouchi didn’t mention them at all. He’s said in past interviews that simply opening up the Capitol following the pandemic lockdowns, along with livestreaming meetings, will bring transparency: "With the Capitol being reopened, I think that is a big statement to have everybody available and the ability to see what we're doing and who's going in and out of whose offices, who's hanging out on the railing and things of that nature."

 Leave it to Gov. Josh Green to devote a big chunk of his State of the State address to ethics in government: “Our state deserves transparent and accountable government.Without good governance, without trust, without ethical standards, how can we truly serve the people and make progress for our state? Corruption must be taken seriously and rooted out — the abuse of power is an affront to the people of Hawaii.”

 Green vowed to sign “any common-sense legislation that achieves meaningful ethics reform in state government. … When it comes to governance, sunlight, open windows, and plenty of fresh air are the best disinfectants.”

 This is our chance. The public says it wants them, the governor said he'll sign them and now it's up to the state Legislature to move them forward. It’s going to take more than lip service to fix this mess.

Nancy Cook Lauer, who’s covered state and local governments for 30 years in Hawaii and Florida, is the publisher of All Hawaii News (

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