Ian Lind: Still No Love for Public Interest Bills at Hawaii Legislature

Many long overdue reforms aimed at making government more transparent and accountable died — again.

The Legislature should wrap up its 2015 session this week on schedule, despite the excitement created by the Senate’s last-minute palace coup.

With the end in sight, I stopped to take a look at how some of the basic bread-and-butter public interest legislation, the kinds of bills that would increase openness and accountability, ultimately fared. These are the kind of things that usually don’t make headlines, but that would make life easier for concerned citizens.

It’s a bit depressing to see that the several agencies most often seen as being essential to the public interest — the State Ethics Commission, Campaign Spending Commission, Office of Elections, and Office of Information Practices — entered the session with very limited agendas. A check of the packages of bills they had introduced shows they were extremely modest.

Not a single bill introduced by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission passed this legislative session.

Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo has advised his commissioners in recent meetings that legislators have not been very receptive to proposals that would strengthen provisions of the state ethics code that are hard to enforce because the existing law is either lax or ambiguous. Whether this same insecurity is common to the other agencies isn’t clear, but is likely a factor in their limited proposals.

And even those limited initiatives produced meager results.

The State Ethics Commission introduced a package of nine bills with House and Senate versions. Not a single one was passed.

Some were simple. One would have clarified a bill passed last year that requires lobbyists to report their lobbying-related expenditures made during any special legislative session. It would have limited the reporting requirement to lobbyists who actually did lobby during the special session, avoiding having hundreds of lobbyists filing blank reports because they weren’t active on the issues being considered. The bill passed the House, but then died without even getting a hearing in the Senate.

There was a bill regarding conflict of interest, which passed the Senate but died in the House. It would have extended the current law, which prohibits state employees from taking official action regarding a business or other undertaking in which themselves, their spouse, or dependent child has a significant financial interest. The bill would have expanded this prohibition to include matters involving a parent, sibling, or adult child.

In its testimony, the commission noted that “under the current law, an employee cannot award a state contract to a business owned by the employee’s spouse, but can award a state contract to a business owned by the employee’s parent, brother or sister, or emancipated son or daughter.”

“Such actions clearly create the appearance of a conflict of interest and undermine public confidence in government,” the commission said.

I certainly agree that public employees would face a conflict of interest in acting on a matter involving their brother, sister, or parent, but for whatever reason the House didn’t see it that way.

Although its substantive legislation didn’t pass, the Ethics Commission did get an appropriation of $130,000 to develop a system for electronic filing of financial disclosures by public officials and other state employees, along with lobbyist and gift disclosures. The commission currently processes about 4,000 disclosure reports annually.

Their current web-based system “does not work well,” according to commission testimony, and this appears to be a gross understatement. The system only recognizes Internet Explorer, according to the commission’s testimony. If any other browser is used to complete the writeable PDF forms, they may appear blank when submitted. And the system does not work with any Apple computer or iPad.

The Campaign Spending Commission introduced a package containing just a single bill, with companion versions in House and Senate. The House version died in the Finance Committee early in the session, while the Senate version died in conference committee just before the deadline for final decking.

The bill would have required candidates to file reports with the Campaign Spending Commission on Jan. 31 of each year, something that is already done in practice. However, the commission testified that the existing statute is unclear, and so it does not believe it can enforce the requirement. This potentially will create a one-year gap in campaign disclosures, from July in a non-election year to the following July, just weeks before the primary election.

Several bills relating to campaign spending that were not part of the commission’s package of bills were also passed or poised to pass.

One bill requires political action committees to file an additional report disclosing their contributions to candidates and other expenditures before the first absentee ballots are distributed, and before the final spending reports are due (10 days before the election). The bill “requires an additional, earlier filing deadline for preliminary reports that disclose noncandidate committee expenditures to allow voters to ‘follow the money’ regarding candidates and issues on the ballot.”

A second measure narrows a limited exemption allowing candidates to accept anonymous contributions at a fundraiser by reducing the amount from $500 to just $100.

And a third bill requires additional disclosure by political committees that only make independent expenditures and are able to accept unlimited contributions. The bill requires any contributor of more than $10,000 (or $5,000 in late contributions) to report where any financial disclosures are available online, the names of all donors of $100 or more, or a statement that they are not subject to any disclosure requirements.

The Office of Elections got two of its four bills passed, including a measure to adjust deadlines to assure that absentee ballots in a special election to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy reach overseas voters, including military personnel, in a timely manner.  Two other bills included in the elections package died, including one that would have restored a provision to allow an absentee ballot to be faxed to a voter if they had not received one in the mail within five days of an election. The law already provides military and overseas voters the right to a faxed ballot, and this would have again extended that to all voters.

One significant bill transfers the Office of Information Practices from a bureaucratic spot under the Lieutenant Governor’s Office to the Department of Accounting and General Services “for administrative purposes.” The move was sought in order to strengthen the independence of OIP, among other reasons, and it’s a big win that’s probably underappreciated.

The final bill includes two key provisions vital to OIP’s autonomy. First, it provides that its “quasi-judicial functions…shall not be subject to the approval, review, or control of the comptroller.” And, further, provides that the comptroller “shall not have the power to supervise or control” OIP in carrying out the duties it is assigned by law.

At least one bill being tracked by OIP would have brought public meeting requirements into the digital age by allowing agencies to email meeting notices and agendas to people who request digital delivery. It would also have required meeting minutes to be posted on agency websites, required “board packets” or other meeting materials be made available to the public, and clarified that the public may make a video as well as an audio recording of any meeting.

These are moves that are long overdue from the public’s perspective, but the measure joined the many others that died in conference.

As is so often the case, we’re left thinking, “maybe next year.”

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