Legislature 2002

Coalition attempts
to weaken power
of panel chairmen

Conference committee
heads can kill even the
most popular bills

By Pat Omandam

A bipartisan legislative coalition wants the House and Senate leadership to adopt rule changes this week to remove the veto-like powers of the chairmen of conference committees.

The group of about a dozen legislators said yesterday that allowing these chairmen -- there are usually at least two assigned to each committee -- to pass or kill any bill despite the will of the majority members of the conference committee is one of the worst practices of the Legislature.

The coalition wants the rules changed so a majority of members can report a bill out of conference committee without the chairmen's' consent.

"It's not right. It's not fair. It will not continue," said state Sen. Sam Slom (R, Hawaii Kai).

Conference committees are convened, usually near the end of the session, to work out differences between versions of a House and Senate bill.

A change in legislative rules last year allows committee chairmen to have the final say on whether a bill dies or is sent forward for final approval.

Democrat Rep. Ed Case (Manoa), who was unsuccessful in changing the rule last year, said this practice has a major impact on legislation because good bills can be held by one chairman during the last days of the session despite widespread support for the measures among the rest of the Legislature.

For example, he said, bills last year on campaign finance reform moved quickly through the session only to be stopped because a conference committee chairman did not agree with them.

Case and others fear a current bill to cap Hawaii gas prices could meet a similar fate if oil company lobbyists can convince a conference committee chairman to kill the bill.

With exactly two weeks left before all bills must be in their final form, they feel it is just one of many measures that are threatened.

"At a time when public confidence in government is ebbing, we should be demonstrating progressive leadership in how we conduct the people's business, rather than returning to the days of smoke-filled back rooms, 11th-hour deal-making and special-interest control of the legislature," Case said.

House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa) said he understands the concerns raised by the coalition.

He said House leaders are working on a compromise that allows committee members to override a chairman's veto of a bill if a majority of the other chairmen on that committee agree to the override. Depending on the bill, some conference committees have four chairmen.

But Sen. Les Ihara (D, Kapahulu), who favors the rule change, said the problem with that plan is that there are often only two chairmen to a committee.

And one chairman alone cannot override the other, he said.

Last year, there were 330 bills that went to conference committees. More than half of those bills went to committees with only two chairmen, Ihara said.

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