'By request' bills are an important part of legislative process
Editor's note: A proposal authorizing the state to spend $1.9 million on a private plane to be used by the governor and other state officials was shot down quickly in the transportation committees of both houses of the Legislature last week. A story on the bill and its origins in last Sunday's Star-Bulletin prompted many questions and phone calls to the office of Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who was quoted in the story. In an effort to clear the air -- and the switchboard -- the Star-Bulletin offered Hanabusa an opportunity to explain the sometimes mysterious practices that precede a bill's introduction.
RECENT interest in a bill proposing an appropriation to purchase an aircraft for state business has focused attention on the process of introducing bills "by request," or B/R. A Star-Bulletin reporter called me with his inquiry about the bill on a Saturday afternoon, while I was at home. I answered his questions candidly and said, "Right now, I'm not in my office, so I can't tell you who asked me to introduce the bill." If the reporter had waited for me to check my records in the office, I would have told him that this particular bill was introduced by request, as a companion Senate bill to House Bill 336, for the vice speaker of the House, Jon Riki Karamatsu.
As president of the state Senate, and as a matter of course, I have adopted a policy of introducing bills for interested citizens and organizations, whether they are constituents, lobbyists, business groups or government entities. I introduce all bills from the governor's office, the mayors of the four counties and the counties themselves as represented by their councils, the law enforcement coalition, the Judiciary and even colleagues in the House of Representatives. Everyone believes their ideas are good ones, and deserve consideration by the Legislature.
Hawaii does not allow for a citizen initiative or referendum, either of which would offer the public an opportunity to bring bills before the Legislature. As a result, I believe it is important to fulfill requests to introduce bills to allow groups and individuals a way to propose laws that they feel will make Hawaii a better place to live and work. Bills introduced by request simply help facilitate access to the legislative system.
TO PUT THIS in context, for the 2007 legislative session I was the primary sponsor on 423 bills; 412 of those bills were introduced by request. And while every one of those bills was important to the person or group who requested its introduction, it is simply impossible to recall the details of every one of them at a moment's notice.
Given my policy of welcoming all bills and the number of bills that I do sponsor as a result, I sometimes introduce bills that I do not personally support or agree with. Rather, I help get bills into the legislative system, and let their supporters work to gain the votes of legislators and, if possible, get the bills enacted into law.
As it stands today, the legislative system of introducing, referring, reporting and voting on bills works well. Each stage of the process acts as a kind of filter, reducing the number of pending bills and bringing to the fore those most deserving of our consideration. But we cannot ignore the benefits of the system as a whole.
Our legislative system is most effective when it is exposed to as many different ideas as possible. While every session produces its share of bills that seem strange or ill-advised to the general public, each is an example of our willingness to allow the system to proceed as it should. The alternative would be to review bills prior to their introduction and select only those that fit into preconceived notions of what will or should pass. This not only would deprive our constituents of an opportunity to participate, but it also would mean limiting the flow of fresh ideas into the legislative arena.
IN THE CASE of SB 1977, which proposed an appropriation of $1.9 million for a state-owned aircraft, we need to view the bill in the context of the complete process. Vice Speaker Karamatsu must have believed there was merit in the state having a private airplane available for official business. Having introduced a bill to that effect in the House of Representatives, he requested that I introduce a companion measure in the Senate; I followed my established policy and introduced his bill "by request." In the regular course of business, SB 1977 was referred to committee, and Sen. Kalani English (D-East Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe), chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and International Affairs, set it for hearing.
All of that was a prelude to asking substantive questions about the merits of the bill itself. No one in the Senate, at the point it was referred to committee, had said that the bill represented a good idea. It was simply an idea. It is our duty as elected officials and our responsibility as representatives of our districts to review all proposals with an open mind.
As an aside, though, I believe the proper inquiry as to the merits of the bill should be made to Karamatsu. I remain an advocate for the practice of having bills introduced "by request," and of answering the questions of the press candidly, irrespective of the political repercussions.
I can understand that the press and the public might respond vigorously when a provocative piece of legislation emerges into public view before it has had time for a full consideration by the Legislature. All I can ask is that they keep in mind the rigorous review each proposal will go through before final approval, and appreciate that the process as a whole is designed to provide our state with a means by which all ideas are worthy of consideration, but only the best ideas become law.
Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua) is president of the state Senate.