Sunday, May 7, 2023

Sunlight: The best disinfectant. Legislative session ends with much more to do to stem corruption

With bribery and corruption indictments and prison terms for two of their own still burning bright in their memories, the Hawaii Legislature this year held the torch of government openness and accountability high. 
Then they dropped that torch in the ditch in favor of power plays and business as usual.

The 2023 legislative session started with great optimism, and indeed, some open government bills passed. But unfortunately, they didn't include the ones that would have made the most difference opening government to the people and stemming corruption.

Apparently, it takes more than the major embarrassment of federal government intervention for the power players to give up a little of that might in favor of laws limiting outside influence into their own secure seats in a one-party, no-term-limits legislative body that promotes arrogance and downright bullying over accountability, and secrecy over openness and the public's right to know.

Thus, we have a blue-ribbon committee that saw many of its 31 proposals killed in those last, behind the scenes, days of the Legislature as conference committees and money-committee power players quietly killed bills meant to make everyone more comfortable with the state's elected representatives and senators who are charged by the constitution with acting in the best interest of the state, not themselves.

Call me a cynic, but I suspected this would happen.

Because of legislative actions and inaction:

  • Members of the public seeking access to their public records can continue to be stymied by reluctant bureaucrats charging exorbitant fees.
  • Lawmakers can continue to collect campaign contributions during the legislative session from the very people and groups pushing for laws to benefit themselves.
  • State and county contractors and their families can continue filling campaign coffers while they hold active contracts and grants.
  • The governor and county mayors continue to have the power to unilaterally suspend electronic media transmission during a state of emergency.
  • Candidates backed by big-money special interests will still have great advantage over candidates financed by the public.

Granted, there were a few wins for open government as well.

  • Lawmakers lowered the monetary threshold for noncandidate committees to report contributions, increased penalties for super PACs violating campaign spending laws and added an additional filing period for campaign finance reports.
  • The state attorney general and county corporation counsels will be required to produce voter guides containing candidate statements and descriptions of ballot measures.
  • Legislators will be required to disclose names of lobbyists they have relationships with. Lobbyists will be required to undergo training and face further gift restrictions around legislative sessions.
  • Nepotism laws were strengthened for state employees, but not for the Legislature.

Daniel Foley, a former associate justice on the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals who chaired the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, remained upbeat, even as some of the important bills died.

"Mahalo for supporting transparency and accountability in government, much was accomplished," Foley posted on a public Facebook page of a good government group. "There will always be more to do."

The good works to open government and stem corruption in the state may not come from the Legislature, but we can look to the federal government with optimism about the next steps. According to a recent Civil Beat article, the U.S. Attorney's Office isn't resting on its laurels.

"Federal prosecutors are looking at a much deeper problem within the State Capitol, including other lawmakers who appear to be willing to take money to sway legislation and other individuals who have no hesitation to pay them to do it," Editor and General Manager Patti Epler said in a May 5 post.

We can only hope.

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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