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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Separation of power must be maintained

By Rep. Kirk Caldwell

Today we have a Republican governor and a Democratic Legislature, and the media and other observers have cried "power grab" whenever the Legislature has proposed bills that reduce or decentralize the governor's authority.

It is often said that the governor of Hawai'i is one of the most powerful in the nation. In part, this can be explained by the fact that Hawai'i is the only state to have evolved from a monarchy, where all power resided with the king or queen. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the only time the state Legislature has acted to take power away from a governor is with our present governor, fueled by partisan politics.

As former Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano can attest, the governor's centralized power has been challenged throughout the years regardless of political party. Then, as now, the Legislature's intent is to uphold the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches to create a stronger system of checks and balances.

Here are a few noteworthy examples of a Democratic Legislature stripping power from a Democratic governor:

  • In 1977, Gov. Ariyoshi will recall that the Legislature passed Act 10, which prohibited the governor from transferring funds or positions between the campuses of the University of Hawai'i.

  • In 1986, the Legislature passed Act 305, which took away the governor's power to fill a vacancy in the U.S. House of Representatives if the unexpired term is fewer than 180 days, requiring a special election.

  • During the Waihee administration, the Legislature reduced the power of the governor to appoint all 13 members of an advisory council that reviewed requests for grants, subsidies and purchases of service. In keeping with the democratic principle of equal branches of government, the Legislature changed the number and makeup of the council to include five members appointed by the governor, and three each from the Senate president and speaker of the House.

  • And with the recent uproar over the failed confirmations of Iwalani White and Peter Young, it should be noted that during the second term of Gov. Cayetano's administration, nominations of Margery Bronster for attorney general and Earl Anzai for director of the Department of Budget and Finance were denied by the Senate.

    This year, the Legislature passed two bills that critics claim erode the governor's power to make appointments, both of which Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed. Politics aside, we disagree with the governor's objections and believe it is in the best interests of the state to override these vetoes. Here's why:

  • Senate Bill 14 establishes a new process by which members are selected for the University of Hawai'i Board of Regents. Until now, this board has been used for political patronage by all governors, Republican and Democrat alike, and SB 14 creates a process whereby candidates are selected from a broader spectrum of our state.

    Selecting regents will become more similar to the universally respected judicial selection commission process, where the candidates are nominated by the governor, the Senate president, the speaker of the House, the Hawa'ii Bar Association, and the chief justice. Most importantly, the UH Board of Regents advisory commission was approved by the majority of voters through a constitutional amendment in the 2006 election.

  • Senate Bill 1063 requires the governor to fill vacancies in the Legislature and the U.S. Senate from a list of candidates submitted by the political party of the former incumbent.

    Not so jokingly referred to as the "Bev Harbin bill" at the Capitol, this bill points to situations such as Gov. Lingle's appointment of Bev Harbin to the House of Representatives in 2005. The governor ignored the qualified candidates provided by the Democratic Party and chose a person who not only had a criminal history but who became a "Democrat" only a few weeks prior to her appointment. This was an insult to the party that had earned the seat, and it should not be allowed to happen to any party in the future.

    Our democratic system of government is founded on the deeply held belief that government can best curb its potential for abuse by maintaining three separate but co-equal branches. Our job as legislators is to correct abuses or imbalances in the system. I will admit that it may be easier to note the imbalances when the executive and legislative branches are led by different parties, but that doesn't mean they don't exist, and it surely doesn't mean that we should let them continue.

    Many have asked, when we next have a Democratic governor, will the Legislature reverse its position on these so called "power grab" bills? The answer is a resounding "no." These bills are based on correcting what we see as abuses to our system of checks and balances and not on any particular person or party. It is the right thing to do, as mandated by our federal and state constitutions.

    Rep. Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa), is House majority leader.