Rob Parsons

Through the Looking Glass

Hawai`i's Legislature demystified

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
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 told me.

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 records.

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 1788.

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 lobbyists.

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 ramifications."

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.