Legislators should reject taking revenge against doctor
The state House has approved a bill that would prohibit legislators from entering into contracts with the state.
As in other states, Hawaii's legislators are part-time, bringing to office potential conflicts of interest that they are supposed to divulge and sometimes recuse themselves when they arise. In what appears to be a tawdry jab at the chairman of the House Health Committee, House leaders have added a prohibition against legislators receiving state contracts to an otherwise worthy Senate-passed bill that would ban them from hiring close relatives on their legislative staffs.
House Health Chairman Josh Green, a Big Island emergency-room physician, agreed last year not to vote on changing the makeup of the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., the state's quasi-public hospital system, with which he has a subcontract. The attorney general has ruled that Green can work on legislative issues related to the 15-hospital system but, at the House speaker's request, Green said he stepped aside "so there would be no appearance of conflict."
"Green has been an avid supporter of putting a limit on noneconomic awards for "pain and suffering" in medical malpractice cases. Judiciary Chairman Tommy Waters, a lawyer, denied a hearing on the malpractice bill in the Legislature's current session, asking House members to observe a moment of silence "for the death of tort reform" -- a joke for which he later apologized.
The state Constitution forbids legislators from holding state jobs or "incompatible" county jobs. After his election to the House, Waters resigned as deputy city public defender and now is in private law practice.
Green understandably saw the proposed ban on legislators entering into state contracts of at least $10,000 as "political retribution" against him for his support of tort reform. Rep. Cynthia Thielen called it a "punitive" measure aimed at Green, although noting that other legislators also have state contracts.
Daniel J. Mollway, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said he had no objection to the proposal. "However," he testified to Waters' committee, "we would like to note that legislators serve in a part-time capacity, and thus care should be taken that this bill not unfairly intrude upon a legislator's ability to earn a living."
"That is precisely what the proposal would do, and it appears to be the intention. Mollway said the "underlying basis" for the state's ethics code is to promote public confidence in state government. He said the code might need such a change "if there is an appearance or actuality that legislators are receiving preferential treatment with respect to contracts for their personal services, or with regard to companies in which they have a controlling interest." That is not the case with Green.
As legislators' salaries soar to $57,852 in the next six years, an argument could be made that they resign any employment in the private sector, but lawmakers, who meet for 60 days over a four-month period, are not likely to do so. Meanwhile, they should not force a member to resign from the Legislature because of vindication arising from disagreement over issues.