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Hawaii should adopt unicameral legislature


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POSTED: Sunday, January 24, 2010

As the 2010 state Legislature gets under way, it's hard not to have a sense of deja vu. Thousands of bills will be introduced — many of them resurrected from last year, or the session before that. Most will die in committee. About 10 percent of those bills will cross the finish line, amid great cheering or hand-wringing. But the vast majority of citizens who get involved because they care about a particular issue will walk away disappointed or disillusioned.

I know first hand how it feels. In the past two sessions, the group I helped found — Beach Access Hawaii — worked closely with legislators and other civic organizations to propose laws that would protect public shoreline access throughout the islands. We had bills get to the very end, only to be shelved because one or two committee chairpersons simply decided not to schedule it for a hearing. That's all it takes to kill a bill, regardless of how much public support it has.

Yet the real deal-breaker is the system itself. If you wanted to design a process that preserves the status quo and discourages public involvement, look no further than the state Capitol. The very nature of having a bicameral Legislature means everything takes twice as long to do. Each bill goes through multiple committee hearings in either the Senate or House of Representatives. If it clears those hurdles, the bill crosses over to the other half of the Legislature and bill supporters must testify all over again for more committees. Along the way, the Senate or House might make changes that necessitate more meetings and negotiations to hammer out a final bill.

Since the legislators are paid to do this, it doesn't matter to them how many committee hearings a bill goes through. However, most people who still have jobs can't skip work to testify or attend hearings to prove the bill has support. And if you are able to get people to e-mail testimony after work, there are only so many times you can ask them to repeat the process before they stop responding altogether. One legislator told me it took him four years of resubmitting the same bill before it finally got passed — and he was a majority leader!

So how can we streamline the law-making process, and make it more citizen-friendly?

My proposed solution: Do away with the bicameral “;part-time”; Legislature and go to a year-round unicameral system. That would cut government costs in half by eliminating one house, and we'd be able to boost the pay for full-time legislators. Fewer legislator jobs with higher salaries would increase competition and give us better candidates.

As evidenced by the myriad of budget problems and unresolved state issues that come up year after year, it seems pretty obvious that part-time legislators aren't getting the job done. Lay off half of them, pay the best qualified leaders salaries that are comparable to what they can earn in private business, and I believe we'd begin to see real results.

Of course, this will never happen. The state Senate and House of Representatives would need at least four years just to decide what to name a unicameral legislative body.

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Rich Figel is founder of BeachAccessHawaii.org, and co-produces the new OC16 show CareerChangers.TV.