Through the Looking Glass
Hawai`i's Legislature demystified
March 08, 2007
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cheshire Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
-Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
Beginning in mid January, the state Legislature is a blur of
activity until the session ends in early May. With some 2,000 bills
introduced yearly to both the Senate and the state House of
Representatives, the pace is often as frantic as that of the White
Rabbit in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. To the average citizen
trying to make some sense of it all, the whole affair may appear as
confusing as the adventures of poor Alice, with a cast of characters
nearly as odd.
"The legislative process in a nutshell is, introduce all this great
stuff, bust `okole, then you lose," one legislative veteran recently
Though the deck may seem to be stacked against successful public
participation, there are opportunities for input as this year's
legislative session nears that mid-point known as "crossover." It's at
this juncture that bills that have survived committee review are passed
from the House to the Senate and vice versa. In the end, some will
survive and become new laws. Unless, of course, the Queen of
Hearts—that would be Governor Linda Lingle—decides to veto.
With such a myriad of proposed new legislation, how can the average person keep track?
One way is to use the state web link at www.capitol.hawaii.gov. Here
you can search for key words to find a bill, check the wording of a
bill and monitor its progress with committee reports and voting
Another strategy is to find a watchdog individual or organization
and ask to be placed on their e-mail alert list. Hearings don't need to
post agendas seven days in advance, as is the case with County Council
and most other public assemblies. Thus, early notification is crucial
for those wishing to provide testimony or appear in person.
GMO Free Maui, for instance, has a link at the bottom of their
webpage to all bills concerning Genetically Modified Organisms. These
include bills on notification and risk assessment, liability,
prohibition of both GMO coffee and taro and labeling for GMO fish.
A citizen's chances against well-funded industry lobbyists—like
those who work for GMO-manufacturer Monsanto—is akin to Alice playing
croquet with a flamingo mallet while using a hedgehog for a ball.
Things keep getting curiouser and curiouser.
Take House Bill 702 for example, which sought to require an
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Hawaii Superferry. I say,
"sought", in the past tense, because this bill is dead as a doorknob.
Maui's Rep. Joe Souki let it die by merely refusing to hear it as Chair
of the Transportation Committee.
The Senate's version of the bill, SB 1276, was amended this week.
Backers diluted it by removing any specific mention to "Hawaii
Superferry," with it now instead merely targeting Department of
Transportation projects over a million dollars. Though the Senate's
bill is likely to survive and cross over to the House, Souki could once
again act as the Queen's Executioner, and cry, "Off with her head!"
Souki's stated reasons that a judge and the feds said an EIS isn't
needed are factually incorrect, but my guess is he won't let logic and
reason get in the way, any more than he would pay attention to
thousands of petition signatures and County Council resolutions from
three islands, all calling for an EIS.
Should we blame Souki? After all, he is one of only six legislators
who received campaign donations ($1,000) from Hawaii Superferry, Inc.
Should we blame the process? Elections are part of the process, and
last time around Maui County had a mere 34 percent of registered voters
show up to vote. It just took 1,900 votes to send Souki back to the Mad
Hatter's Tea Party.
Maui residents may take interest in specific issues, from changing
the processes that have led to stymieing efforts for a second medical
facility (HB 1067, SB 1792), to revamping the process for Public,
Educational, and Governmental (PEG) Access Procurement, which threatens
Akaku Community Access Television unless there is a remedy through SB
Maui Peace Action and others are tracking two bills regarding
Depleted Uranium (DU) testing, HB 1452 and SB 1669. Some have said the
DU issue is a further reason for needing an EIS for Hawaii Superferry,
Inc. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, Superferry's $70 million
investor, has stated the boats will be an essential link for
transporting Stryker Brigade (which uses DU in their weapons) troops
and equipment from Oahu to the Big Island.
The Sierra Club's Jeff Mikulina has shepherded environmental
legislation for the past several years, and was instrumental in
rallying efforts for the Bottle Bill and Legacy Lands Act, to name a
few. This year he touts the Global Warming Solutions Act (HB 226, SB
1612) as the most vitally important single bill this session. This
measure would address Hawai`i's contribution to global climate change
by identifying, regulating and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
Such a measure is ambitious and complicated, with lots of sections
and different deadlines. Sen. Roz Baker, part of Maui's one-two punch
heading the powerful Ways and Means Committee (Shan Tsutsui is
vice-chair), almost didn't schedule a hearing for the bill because she
felt it was "too difficult to understand." But public pressure in the
form of calls, faxes and e-mailed testimony apparently changed her
mind, and SB 1612 is moving forward. Still, the obvious opponents are
Hawaiian Electric and its subsidiaries, Western States Petroleum and
other big-money players in the fossil fuel business.
Mikulina is also pushing SB 1702, which requires retailers to take
back recyclable bottles and cans, as is the case in most other Bottle
Bill states. Once again, the obstacles are the retailers, distributors
and beverage container industries, all represented by full-time
Even great-sounding bills, such as a solar hot-water heating mandate
for all new homes (SB 644), can get hung up. In this case, those
opposed to the requirement include builders/developers, The Gas
Company, Hawaiian Electric (again) and even a potential ally, the solar
industry! Mikulina feels the industry is doing well with residential
retrofits and fears the change, or possibly an influx of new solar
businesses if installations were mandated.
Similarly, well-intentioned measures, such as the creation of Aha
Councils to guide resource and subsistence management (HB 1848), could
dismember years of efforts to implement a lay gill net ban. A Maui News
editorial called HB 1848 "political pandering of the worst kind, an
insult to Native Hawaiian traditions of stewardship and a major threat
to the survival of reef life in all the islands." The respective bills
were introduced and supported by Sen. Kalani English and Rep. Mele
Carroll, both native Hawaiians, but the pressure behind the bill is
largely from thousands of Oahu fishermen.
Timing the introduction of new legislation is another wild card.
Advancing under the radar are bills that would give $59 million in
special revenue bonds to Maui Electric and BlueEarth Biofuels for a
proposed bidiesel refinery on Maui (SB 1718, HB 1912). The bills were
well on their way through committees before citizen and environmental
groups began to scrutinize the requests.
"It doesn't comply with state procurement to hand-pick one company
and award this kind of support," said Lance Holter of the Sierra Club,
Maui Group. "They probably should be required to prepare an EIS for
using state funds, and so that the public can have time to properly
review the project before committing to something of this massive
scale, with probable detrimental economic and environmental
Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee bickering over a broken rattle,
legislative proceedings go forth with airs of great importance, but
often with the appearances of absurdity. Every year, a few good bills
sneak through the system, though many more are left by the wayside. On
the other side of the legislative looking glass, that's just the way
things are. MTW
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