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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Definition of chutzpah: the state Legislature

By David Shapiro

It's difficult to decide whether to gag or giggle about a wacky bill moving through the Legislature that seeks to regulate corporate responsibility and unselfish business dealings.

This is the same Legislature that encourages corporate irresponsibility by conniving to lift restrictions that limit corporate political contributions to what individual donors can make.

This is the same Legislature that promotes selfish business dealings by embedding key committees with corporate "interns" from industries they regulate, bestowing cozy private access not available to the general public.

This is the same Legislature that lamely tries to make ordinary citizens feel as important as corporations by asking on our tax returns if we qualify for tax credits for building aquariums at our resorts in Ko Olina.

Perhaps lawmakers should shore up their own understanding of responsibility, openness and altruism before trying to impose their skewed view of civic morality on the business world.

House Bill 3118, the Responsible Business Corporation Act, has sailed through the Legislature so far, passing the House unanimously and clearing two readings in the Senate.

The measure is mostly for show; its provisions were rendered all but meaningless by amendments in the Senate Ways and Means Committee that would delete tax breaks for corporations that toe the line and delay implementation until 2050.

But still, it's galling that legislators are so quick to impose sanctimonious standards on businesses that they won't embrace for themselves.

Basically, HB 3118 seeks to give community interests more of a voice in business dealings by encouraging companies to include "stakeholders" such as public-interest advocates and employees on their boards of directors.

What a novel idea. Wouldn't it be wonderful if legislators gave citizens speaking for the public interest that kind of a prominent voice in their own policy-making.

Instead, they conduct key business in secret by exempting themselves from the state "sunshine law" that requires other government agencies to conduct open meetings and keep open records.

They deny citizens the opportunity to make meaningful comment on legislation by arbitrarily waiving the 48-hour hearing notice, as the House Finance Committee did last week on the bitterly contested raceway tax credit.

Other times, they circumvent the 48-hour rule by posting hearing notices just before weekends and holidays when the Capitol is closed.

While concerned citizens go into these hearings clueless about the content of legislation, affected businesses and other vested interests are given ample time to study the language and suggest changes.

Committee chairs routinely hijack bills moving through the process to insert often controversial new language on unrelated issues without giving the public a fair chance to comment on the new bill.

The Legislature has no apparent ethical rules governing the placement and duties of embedded corporate interns, or guidelines for dealing with conflicts of interest that will inevitably occur.

Larry Geller, president of the Kokua Council, said the practice of acting on amended bills without supplying copies to the public in advance "is spreading like an evil force."

"Committee chairs have the ability to kill legislation at their whim, or to switch it around behind the scenes in such a way that their own view of the issue takes precedence over public testimony," he says.

"It's particularly dismaying, then, to find that people closest to them (embedded interns) ... are executives of companies or organizations whose issues come before the chair's committee."

Geller is circulating a petition at bringsunshinetohawaii.com asking House and Senate leaders to correct these and other abuses that stymie full public involvement in the legislative process.

Lawmakers should write his excellent suggestions into a bill and call it the Responsible Legislative Accountability Act.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.