Saturday, March 11, 2023

Sunlight is the best disinfectant: Same-same but different may be close enough


Same-same but different, a piquant phrase brought to Hawaii by our Southeast Asia neighbors, sums it up perfectly as transparency bills recommended by a blue-ribbon commission slowly wind their way through the state Legislature.

Same-same but different. Or, in American terms, close enough.

Thus we have 31 measures introduced to the Legislature by the commission, along with scores of other bills proposed by government agencies or sponsored by legislators purporting to accomplish the same thing.

So far, so good.

As the 2023 Legislature hit its midpoint, when bills sponsored by and passed one house move on to the other house, all but one of the bills promoted by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct survived the first round in some form or another.

(Guess which one died?

Bingo! HB 796, a proposed constitutional amendment limiting legislators' terms to 16 years. The House version was deferred without discussion at its first committee and the Senate version, SB 1424, never got assigned to a committee at all.)

Notably, 11 of the successful measures moving from the House to the Senate were the actual bills proposed by the so-called "Foley commission," after they received inevitable amendments in one committee or another.

Another 16 non-commission Sunshine bills of various stripes also moved to the Senate by the deadline. The Senate, in turn, sent 30 such bills over to the House.

Standards Commission Chairman Daniel Foley is OK with that.

"When I was appointed last year to head the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, there was (and still is) skepticism on the part of many that the Hawaii Legislature was serious about making state and county government more transparent and accountable," Foley, a former associate justice on the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals, said in a recent column in Civil Beat.

"Take my word for it, " Foley added, "the Legislature is serious."

I'd love to share Judge Foley's optimism, but we do need to remind the Legislature the public's skepticism is well-grounded in very recent history.

A few of the convictions and pending charges, lest we forget:

• A Senate majority leader and a House Finance committee vice chairman accepted thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for shaping legislation.

• A $10.9 million affordable housing credit scheme by a county housing employee and three individuals from the private sector.

• Drug trafficking conspiracy, distribution of methamphetamine and assault by a county councilman.

• Conspiracy by a police chief, prosecutor and deputy county prosecutor and  several employees of an engineering firm, along with conspiracy to hide public funds by a city corporation counsel, managing director and police commission chairperson.

• Bribery of a county environmental management director by a businessman.

• Bribery of five county planning department employees by an architect.

• Embezzlement and fraud by a former union leader and two of his family members.

• Potential instances of fraud by former top officials at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs totaling more than $7.3 million.

That is one big mess of corruption that will take a whole lot of disinfectant. Sunshine is the first step. And the Foley bills -- or their clones -- are the way to go about it.

The public has a role here as well. If you want clean government, get out there and remind our elected officials as the bills continue through the second half of the session.

Learn more about the history of the Foley Commission here. 

 Find the pertinent bills at Civil Beat's awesome bill tracker.

Then, track your favorite measures and submit testimony by entering the bill number on the Legislature's website. Even a few lines or simply supporting or opposing bills will let the decision-makers know you're paying attention.

It's important to recognize that, while some of the best bills came from  the Foley Commission, it ultimately doesn't matter which of whose bills get the nod.

Same-same but different, you know.

Or as Harry S Truman put it, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

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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