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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 12, 2006

Lift veil between Legislature, citizens

By Sen. Les Ihara Jr.

Opening Day at the Legislature always draws a crowd that fills the gallery. Most of the Legislature's doings are harder for the public to follow.


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Hawai'i's sunshine law gives residents the right to be informed about government meetings, and to participate in them. The law applies to state and county boards, including county councils, but not the Legislature.

In Hawai'i, the public has no legal right to testify at the Legislature on proposed legislation, or to receive reasonable notice of legislative hearings. Instead, the Legislature voluntarily gives two or three days' notice for committee hearings and accepts testimony.

Without guaranteed opportunity for public input, the House and Senate each adopt rules governing their respective body and committees. Because legislative rules easily can be waived or suspended, and frequently are, public confidence in the rules is low.

Many people say they feel disconnected from the Legis-lature and left out of the pro-cess. There's a sense that difficult decisions are made in private, and public discussions and votes are just for show.

I believe the Legislature should conduct more of its business in public. It should encourage public deliberation, especially on controversial issues, to shed light on the motivations and reasons for legislative actions.

I believe the Legislature should repeal its exemption from the sunshine law. Exceptions should be allowed only to comply with constitutional requirements. Twenty state legislatures are subject to sunshine laws, including seven with exemptions for political-party caucuses.

Lack of time is the reason most often cited for the Legis-lature's sunshine-law exemption. The state Constitution limits the legislative session to 60 business days, which requires an intense work schedule to meet legislative deadlines. A solution to this problem would be to extend the session a few more weeks by adding recess days.

This would require an increase to the legislative budget that I believe the public would support as the price of sunshine at the Legislature.

In my view, a larger barrier to legislative transparency is a mindset that the ends justify the means. With this thinking, it is easy to view rules as impediments. I've seen leaders I respect use unprincipled means and reasoning to pass good and worthy legislation.

But coercive practices, political trade-offs and other publicly unacceptable behavior can only be sustained under a cloak of secrecy. I believe the transparency requirements of the sunshine law would help curtail these practices and promote the democratic principles of fairness, equality, inclusiveness and accountability at the Legislature.

In a way, the Legislature operates like a secret society. Relationships among legislators and lobbyists mostly are developed outside of public view. The actions of legislators sometimes mask their real intentions.

No wonder legislative observers, the media and public are often mystified by what they see.

That most legislators are focused on re-election campaigns is no secret. I believe legislative transparency should include public disclosure of lobbyist donations received during the legislative session, or an outright ban. Legislators also should disclose their major business clients that may be affected by legislation.

The Legislature is exempted from state conflicts-of-interest laws, and there is no legislative ethics committee to rule or advise on potential conflicts. This breeds suspicion and cynicism that can lead people to wonder if business relationships or campaign donations are influencing legislative decisions.

Also, in the process of managing a hierarchical power structure in a legislative organization, the line between legitimate influence and coercion sometimes can get blurred. I believe more transparency would reduce unacceptable behavior and increase public trust, as well as provide for more equitable power distribution among legislators.

Another roadblock to transparency is a legislative legal opinion shielding legislators' office records from the open-records law. The state Office of Information Practices has ruled that these are public documents, especially those on official legislative letterhead. I believe the Legislature's opinion should be reversed.

Citizens find it difficult to follow the legislative process, but a bill still alive at the Legislature would provide a window into the process. The bill funds an audio and video Web-cast project to provide Internet access to legislative proceedings.

Since all Capitol meeting rooms are wired for sound, anyone with high-speed Internet access could listen to live or archived proceedings.

If the Legislature conducted its business based on principles of the sunshine law, I believe it would produce better, more comprehensive solutions to persistent community problems. Under the sunshine law the process is as important as the product, if not more.

With greater transparency and integrity in the process of lawmaking, legislation can reflect the views of the many, rather than the few. I believe the sunshine law would help foster more discussion of the issues, make it harder to suppress opposing or minority views, and increase healthy competition among ideas.

My vision is that the Legislature will one day fully recognize citizen rights to participate in the lawmaking process and embrace sunshine law principles in conducting its business.

When that day comes, I envision the Legislature having an empowering, productive and inspiring relationship with the public. When there is a full partnership between the Legislature and public, we can solve our most perplexing problems by using the wisdom of the whole community.