March 1989 Home   Newsletters

May 1989

Fall 1989

Allan F. Saunders
Thoughts of a Legislative Observor (Evelyn Bender)
State Board Salutes Kaua'i League
President's Column (Anne Lee)
Keeping Democracy a Process for the People: An Impossible Dream?
Preparing for Convention
LVWEF Pooled Income Fund
Planned Parenthood Petition Drive
New State Board Members
League Definitions
Legislative Update

Thoughts of a Legislative Observor

After close observation of various legislative bodies, ranging from the New England town meeting to the U.S. Congress, for the past 35plus years, the last seven in Hawai'i, I have formulated many opinions and have come to several conclusions.

First, and foremost, I have to agree with Edmund Burke's statement that if you like good sausages and good laws, you should not watch the making of either. But that does not mean I think legislators should operate in the dark or inefficiently. Citizens not only want to see the laws being made, but they want to participate in the process. I am saying they must have patience and often much fortitude.

Early law-making bodies in the U.S. worked according to their own schedules and convenience with little thought to opening up their decision-making to the general public. However, as communication, transportation, and educational systems improved, the public has demanded not only that sunshine should be let into the lawmaking procedure but that citizens themselves should have more participation in it. Today, across the country, legislative bodies are grappling with the citizenry's demand for more openness and participation at the same time that they are trying to cope with increased workloads.

In Hawai'i, the public has been calling for improvements in legislative procedures as well as in the public's access to them. Complaints about access include inadequate parking, inability to obtain bills before they are heard or acted upon; inadequate notice of hearings; inability to get information on the status of bills; and the lack of a working space for citizens at the Capitol. Many citizens and legislators agree that the great number of bills introduced each session adds to the difficulties.

Since Hawai'i has a limited legislative session – 60 working days – one of the first solutions generally proposed each year is that the legislative session be lengthened (through constitutional amendment) so that the increased workload could be dealt with more effectively. There are, however, two steps that could be taken that might obviate the need for a longer legislative session. These steps are more full-time year-around staff and a pre-session bill-introduction cutoff date.

More full-time year-around staff. Currently there is a small cadre of full-time year-around workers in the legislature, but most workers are hired for the legislative session only. The latter are hired anywhere from six weeks to one day before Opening Day and work until a few days after the session expires. This means that for the most part you have people who are not only inexperienced in the legislative process but who are also expected to perform knowledgeably in a high-pressure situation. By the time these workers, who are learning on the job, can perform effectively and efficiently, the legislative session is over, and they must find new employment. When the next session comes around, lawmakers are again faced with a pool of new and inexperienced legislative staff.

Another disadvantage of using part-time legislative session workers is that the legislative staff often lacks expertise in the many subject matters that must be dealt with. This often puts the staff as well as legislators at a disadvantage in dealing with members of the executive branch and lobbyists.

It may be that the Hawai'i legislature, by using part-time and session-only staff, is being penny wise and pound foolish. While money may be saved in the short term by avoiding. year-around salaries and not having to provide employee benefits, in the long run more money may be being wasted through inefficiency and lack of knowledge.

Pre-Session Bill-Introduction Cuf-Off Date. Instead of having the cut-off date for bill introduction two weeks or so after the legislative session opens, as it is now, this cut-off date could be set four to six weeks before Opening Day so all bills would have been introduced by the time the legislative session opens. Currently bills are coming in at the same time that others on the same subject, but introduced earlier, are being heard. A pre-session cut-off date would enable committee chairs to see all the bills that have been introduced before scheduling hearings and to group bills on the same or similar subjects for hearings. Hearing dates could then be set well in advance thus allowing early and adequate notice to the public.

Two other changes that might be tried are a rearrangement of the legislative session and joint House and Senate committee hearings.

Rearrangement of the Legislative Session. The 60-day legislative session could be maintained but extended over a longer time period. Instead of holding floor sessions five days a week (except for the legislative recess) and hearing 5, 6, or 7 days a week as now, floor sessions and hearing would be held only on the first three or four days of the week. (It is the days that floor sessions are convened that count toward the 60 days.) The rest of the week could be used by staff and legislators to catch up on the paper work generated by the hearings, prepare for the upcoming hearings, and deal with other legislative and constituent problems. Staff, as well as legislators, now work long hours, often seven days a week, throughout the legislative period at a cost to efficiency and performance. A three-or four-day-a-week schedule would enable legislators to deal with their other employment and have more time with their families and might encourage people who are unable to make the current intensive time commitment to run for the legislature.

Joint House and Senate Committee Hearings. Currently the House and Senate committees hold separate hearings on the same bills although recently a few committees have scheduled joint hearings on important issues. Joint hearings would mean that testifiers would only have to appear once to explain their positions. Joint hearings would allow the senators and representatives to hear each others concerns on the subject, clear up misunderstandings, and perhaps allow them to find solutions much earlier and without generating as much paperwork. It might also provide an opportunity for a much deeper exploration of the subject by all concerned and give the staff a little more time to deal with the necessary paperwork.

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None of the above suggestions is novel or earth-shattering. They are already in existence in other state legislatures. It is obvious that each year the workload is increasing in the Hawai'i legislature and the public, while clamoring for more access and services, seems to be locked out more and more. This year, bills often were not in print and available for the public at the time of hearings, and the 48-hour notice of hearings was frequently waived. Committee reports on amended bills, for the most part, were not available until days after floor action had already been taken on them. As usual, things were done hurriedly, and often haphazardly, to meet the deadlines.

Do we want our legislative process to be closed and a race to the finish line? I don't think so. I think we want a deliberative process, open to public participation, efficient, and cost-effective. It is time for the legislative leadership as well as for all the legislators to honor their commitment to such a process before the system breaks down altogether. Remember what happened over 200 years ago when the cry was "taxation without representation." Could such an action take place today?

Evelyn Bender

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