Professor with pothole peeve takes action
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Amy Brown's motive is simple.
"It's my car. My alignment," she said of her red 1995 Honda Acura Legend. "I hit a pretty bad pothole and now the car shakes."
Rather than just grumble, Brown, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa who lives in Kaimuki, got active. She contacted state lawmakers about a possible bill on road repairs. To her surprise, they responded immediately.
State Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kahala, Hawai'i Kai), called her back even though she does not live in his district. An aide to state Sen. Les Ihara, Jr., D-9th (Kapahulu, Kaimuki, Palolo), promised to help draft a bill and get a companion in the state House.
Just before the bill introduction deadline on Jan. 23, Ihara's staff linked up with state Rep. Barbara Marumoto, R-19th (Wai'alae Iki, Kalani Valley, Kahala), Brown's representative, who was able to rush out a bill with a few hours to spare.
The experience has left Brown both impressed and perplexed.
Like many people, Brown is not exactly familiar with how things work at the state Capitol. She has no lobbyist. She has no interest group behind her. She has no campaign money to give out. She is a citizen with an idea.
Her bill is one of more than 2,750 introduced in the state Legislature this session.
One not-so-secret fact of life at the Capitol is how easy it is to get a bill introduced. Only state representatives and senators have the power to introduce bills, but they routinely propose legislation at the request of their constituents or interest groups.
Some of these bills are labeled "by request," which is internal code that the bill is being introduced as a courtesy and not necessarily because the lawmaker endorses the concept. Those "by request" bills can sometimes have comical results.
Last session, state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), took flak for a bill to purchase a private airplane for official state business. Hanabusa had introduced the bill by request but it took awhile, after a slew of newspaper headlines and television reports, for some to realize it belonged to state Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-41st (Waipahu, Village Park, Waikele).
This session, state Sen. J. Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i), has received local and national attention — and was the target of a parody on one Kaua'i blog — for a bill to ban aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in soft drinks. English has explained in a letter to a Moloka'i newspaper that he introduced the bill by request for a longtime Moloka'i resident.
Ihara said he originally was going to introduce Brown's bill by request, but then decided he liked her idea.
Her bill would have the state Department of Transportation annually set aside a percentage of the state highway fund for road repairs and maintenance. The department would have to identify the 10 most critical highway repairs each year and then commit to do the work. The department also would have to come up with a list of 10 critical repair projects in resort areas and then do that work.
"We scrambled," said Ihara, who first heard from Brown just before session started last month. His office usually prefers to have bills ready well before session. "This one raised some issues worthy of discussion. So that's why I decided not to go 'by request.' I would like to get a hearing and, while it probably needs more work, the issues it raises are good ones."
Ihara said he had heard Brown was turned down by state Rep. Joseph Souki, D-8th (Wailuku, Waihe'e, Waiehu), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, so his staff figured that Marumoto was Brown's constituent and made contact with her staff.
Given that thousands of bills are introduced each session, state House and Senate leaders have tried to set some internal gatekeeping to prevent a glut of bills that may never get heard. Marumoto said she had been under the impression she could only introduce 10 bills this session. Brown's bill was the eleventh.
"I'm trying to keep my number down and this request came in very late," Marumoto explained. "But I'm all for road improvements and I'm trying to help a constituent."
Brown's bill was referred to the Senate Transportation and International Affairs Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The House companion was referred to the House Transportation Committee and the House Finance Committee.
Her first public hearing will be in the Senate tomorrow afternoon.
Brown said she was only kidding when she said her sole motivation was her car. She believes potholes are a statewide problem and that her bill would help all drivers.
"Everybody is talking and talking but no one has done anything about it," she said.
Reach Derrick DePledge at firstname.lastname@example.org.