Author Gathering Place

Laure Dillon

Altering a simple rule
could improve image
of every lawmaker

Getting a law passed in the state Legislature requires that it be approved by various committees and the majority of members in both the House and Senate. Yet at the final moment, one senator can veto the actions of all other representatives and senators.

Amazingly, Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, who is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs, has held public hearings in an open and citizen-friendly way on remedying this unfair situation. The operation of the Senate is covered by "Senate rules," which have not been open to public debate before. These hearings have presented a rare opportunity to make a dramatic and positive change in the way the Senate conducts the public's business.

Initially the hearings, called for by Senate Resolution 147, addressed what occurs at the end of the bill hearing process when bills are put into final form in joint House and Senate conference committees. The existing rules allow a single Senate committee chairman to veto or modify a bill that has been approved by a majority of all other legislators.

Given the opportunity to speak about the inner workings for the first time, public testimony unanimously supported the principle that each person in a democracy has one vote, and this should be true in conference committees, too. Why should Hawaii be the only state that gives its conference committee chairmen veto power over a majority of all the other committee members?

Again, thanks to the openness of the hearings conducted by Hanabusa, concerned citizens criticized what happens at the beginning of the bill hearing process as well. Some bills have been improperly assigned to committees that do not have direct jurisdiction over the subject of the bill simply because the chairmen of those committees wanted to kill or tamper with them.

One bill mentioned repeatedly at the hearings was the campaign finance reform bill designed to bring to the people of Hawaii the option of a new way to fund election campaigns: comprehensive public funding.

For the past four years, comprehensive public funding bills have passed all House votes, then moved to the Senate where they were wrongly assigned to a hostile committee and quickly squelched. This new funding approach, called "voter-owned elections" in some states, would allow serious candidates to run effective campaigns without taking gifts from private interests. But the bills, strongly supported by the Hawaii Clean Elections Coalition, never could reach the floor of the Senate for a vote because of the opposition of a few powerful individuals.

Again, at the SR 147 hearings, public testimony was unanimous in requesting that Senate rules require bills to be assigned to committees that have direct and logical jurisdiction over them.

At 2 p.m. tomorrow in Capitol Conference Room 229, the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee will decide what to do about these undemocratic situations. This is the important moment. Will the Senate adopt a more open and fair process, or will it be business as usual? Will the Senate Judiciary committee recommend to the entire Senate that the body (1) end the conference committee chairmen's veto powers, and (2) require bills to be assigned to proper committees, or will all its excellent work be sidetracked?

Accountability, openness, fairness and ethical behavior should be the standards by which every Senate action is measured. These two changes to the Senate rules can go a long way toward re-establishing public confidence in our treasured democratic process.

Laure Dillon is executive director of Hawaii Clean Elections Coalition.


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