Category Archives: Legislature

Some advice from a longtime journalist on legislative coverage

“If you want to really cover the Legislature you’ve got to be there, and not just for opening day.” Susan Halas,

Sage advice from Susan Halas, who has been reporting on Hawaii politics since 1976, writing for a number of publications over the years. She is now a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch, and has her own public relations and communications company, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Her comment on my post about how to cover the legislature is absolutely correct and on point. I’m reprinting it here for those who don’t obsessively follow comments because it so accurately captures what’s necessary to do it right.

I was a young reporter in the 70s working for the Maui News. In those years my paper sent me to Oahu to attend the sessions. I learned to cover the legislature by actually going to the offices of our elected officials and getting to know them and their staff, and showing up often enough that they got to know me too. I also learned early on that most really important decisions were not decided on the floor or in committee but in much more informal settings like the Columbia Inn, a variety of nameless bars, or hoisting a few pau hana beers with the ILWU folks. Those decisions were just confirmed at the legislature.

We reporters were also expected to actually READ the legislation introduced by members of our Maui delegation, and tell the folks at home what was in the bills sponsored by our lawmakers and also provide the details of the other important legislation of the day.

Even though print journalism is effectively comatose in Hawaii, there is no substitute for legwork, personal contact and a wide net of off-the-record friends and sources.

Following the career of a legislator like Maui’s Joe Souki from his first public office as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1978 (where he resented the tag “Elmer’s (Cravalho’s) Boy” through his rise to Speaker of the House, to his fall at the hand of his own crew and his resurrection through dint of circumstance and perseverance, has been a fascinating close-up view of how political clout is wielded in our state. It’s all personal. We still do it face-to- face, one-on-one, and the most important skill a lawmaker can have, as Souki learned early on, is the ability to count.

No matter what the vibe, speed or reach of social media it is not yet where decision are made, though it is regrettably often where opinions are formed.

If you want to really cover the Legislature you’ve got to be there, and not just for opening day.

And that was how I felt when I walked away after covering the legislature for five years as executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, serving as the organization’s lobbyist, public spokesman, researcher and legislative analyst.

I felt at that time, and continue to feel, that to make a difference in the legislative process requires a full time presence and full attention. You have to be part of living in that small village of several hundred people who gather from January to May each year and somehow manage to pass legislation by the end of the period. Whether as a reporter, a community advocate, or a lobbyist, you’re facing the same job of learning how the system really works, finding sources you can trust, and then riding the beast through the rough parts of each year’s session.

In an organization, it isn’t necessary for each person to commit to a full-time presence at the legislature, as long as you’ve got someone in that position who can work the hallways and also guide others in applying outside political pressure via public opinion, mobilization of constituents, etc.

In another comment, Aaron suggested a crowdfunding project to support independent reporting at the legislature. As with any journalistic endeavor, though, that’s no simple project.

And so it goes. If the ideas float around for a while, maybe some will take hold and go somewhere.

How would you cover the legislature?

I was talking about the upcoming legislative session over lunch with a friend yesterday. One of the realities is that there’s far less new coverage overall, and far fewer reporters working the capitol during the session. This reduces the amount of information the public gets about what’s going on, and the key issues being debated, and also makes it much more difficult for community organizations, nonprofit advocates, or other interest groups to make their voices heard.

It would seem that the availability of free access to social media should theoretically make it easier to create alternatives to fill the gaps in the much-reduced traditional political reporting.

But has it?

So here’s the first question: Are there existing organizations or interest groups that track and regularly report to their members or the general public while the legislature is in session? Organizational blogs? Twitter feeds? Podcasts? If anyone’s doing it, could the public access the information?

And regardless of the answer, I know there are lots of political junkies here who probably have ideas of the kind of information they would find valuable to receive during the session.

If you’re one of those, what would you rank as priorities? If you were able to plan some kind of regular legislative coverage, what would it include?

Share here, please! Maybe it will encourage some new initiatives.

Not quite missing in action

Yes, I missed getting a post online yesterday. Lots of reasons, no excuses.

I got dropped off downtown early in the day and spent several hours in the Circuit Court documents room, going through some case files.

When I was done, I headed for the bus and just forgot to finish the job.

One of the cases I checked on was the Hawaii State Teachers Association’s lawsuit against the State Ethics Commission over the commission’s guidelines prohibiting teachers from accepting free travel when serving as chaperones during educational trips for students.

Last week, Judge Rhonda Nishimura voided a commission advisory opinion and related memorandum issued in August 2015 spelling out its interpretation of the ethics code as applied to these educational trips.

Despite some key arguments made on behalf of the HSTA by attorney (and Congressional candidate) Colleen Hanabusa, the ethics commission declined to give any ground or to soften their position. I’ll get back to additional details of the arguments in a later post.

So after hearing oral arguments, Nishimura ruled the commission’s travel guidelines affect a broad section of the public and are not limited to a specific case or situation, are forward looking, and therefore must be adopted as agency rules, with opportunities for public input guaranteed by state law.

One key point was buried in the arguments. Hanabusa pointed out that the same issues underlying the disagreement over teacher travel and education trips are also involved in applying the gift provisions of the ethics code to legislators and other public officials.

One part of the what is at issue is the ethics commission’s interpretation of this part of the law, which provides:

Gifts. No legislator or employee shall solicit, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, any gift, whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality, thing, or promise, or in any other form, under circumstances in which it can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence the legislator or employee in the performance of the legislator’s or employee’s official duties or is intended as a reward for any official action on the legislator’s or employee’s part.

HSTA repeatedly questioned how the ethics commission decides what is a “reasonable inference.”

It’s the same provision at issue, whether applied to teachers or to lobbyists and legislators.

This is dangerous territory, because prior ethics opinions about gifts to legislators have been grumbled about at the State Capitol but not directly challenged. It’s a rare elected official who wants to publicly be seen on the wrong side of ethics.

This is clearly tricky territory, especially because the ethics commission is bound by the ethics laws, which are passed by the Legislature and can be amended by them as well.

If the commission holds to its prior position, and the teachers case is ultimately pushed to rulemaking, it will necessarily open the door to challenges to the way gifts to legislators have been treated by the commission. Lobbyists and legislators may be anxious to renew that debate. I’m not sure the public wants to risk loosening of existing restrictions.

In defense of legislative decorum

In my Civil Beat column last week, I took a slightly different position than usual, speaking out in support of the members of our legislature (“Ian Lind: Legislators, And The Political Process, Deserve More Respect“).

I was reacting to C-B columnist and retired UH Political Science professor, Neal Milner, who had criticized legislators for declining to speak “on the record” about internal legislative factions and political dynamics.

Milner accused legislators of “hiding out in the dark,” and said they were “too frightened to explain publicly to the voters how the Legislature really works.”

I took issue with that characterization, pointing out that there are many good reasons for not going public with all the inside gossip.

I would encourage you to read the whole column, and if you’re not a Civil Beat subscriber, find a friend who will share the column with you. Better yet, consider subscribing to Civil Beat. It’s no longer as expensive as it used to be.

Here’s one section of the column.

Simple good manners are one good reason that legislators might not want to offer up blunt and candid assessments of their colleagues for public consumption.

Working together in a setting as complex as a legislative body requires overcoming personal differences in order to build and maintain working relationships. People work together by finding areas of agreement and, for the sake of getting things done, overlooking their differences, at least temporarily.

In other areas of everyday life, we have things that we might say privately, among family or trusted friends, that we would never share publicly. This puts a limit on transparency that isn’t based on fear. It’s based on our common sense approach to getting along with others in the world.

The Legislature isn’t any different, just more complicated.

Eagle was spot-on when he described the Legislature as “organized chaos.”

I’ve often commented on the amazing complexity of the Legislature and what it takes to get things done. There are 76 legislators elected from their own single-member districts.

Back in their home districts, each is on his or her own. They seek office for different reasons, with different goals. Some believe in causes, some just in themselves. Some squeak in by a few votes, others are elected by broad margins.

They come from diverse backgrounds, and vary greatly in education, experience and innate abilities. All are almost by definition ambitious.

They’re divided by political party, by age, gender, ethnicity, state of origin, by the special interests of their districts and their islands, by ideology and by profession. Somehow they get themselves organized and select leaders through a baroque process of political barter and negotiation.

And only then do they start on the policymaking process of sorting through thousands of ideas, reducing them to bills and, somewhat miraculously, finding ways to reach agreement on at least some of them while in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a 60-working day session.

The legislative process depends on harnessing all those competing egos and interests so that they can work together toward at least some minimal version of a common interest. Throw in the pressures introduced by lobbyists, constituents and community groups, special interests, and those pesky reporters, not to mention personal or family demands, and it’s amazing that the process works at all.

Sunlight Foundation looks at unregistered lobbyists

If you’re at all concerned about the regulation of lobbyists and lobbying, you will want to check out this article from the Sunlight Foundation, “What is shadow lobbying? How influence peddlers shape policy in the dark“).

The basic premise, backed up by some data and anecdotal evidence, is that lobbyist registration and disclosure requirements have loopholes that are being exploited by many to avoid disclosure. The article is focused on the national level, but I’m sure if we dig down a bit, we’ll find applies to state and local lobbying in Hawaii as well.

Both the article and its rich set of references are worth careful reading.

Shadow lobbying refers to someone who performs advocacy to influence public policy, like meeting legislators or their staff, without registering as a lobbyist — and it’s a big problem for anyone who cares about transparency in Washington. (For further reading on this topic, you can’t do better than to read Lee Fang’s 2014 investigation of shadow lobbying at The Nation.)

At the Congressional level, lobbyists are supposed to register if they spend 20% of their time lobbying for a client, or make two or more contacts with legislators, their staff, or certain executive agency officials.

The article refers to this 20% criteria as “reasonably easy to get around.”

The same seems to be true of Hawaii’s lobbying law, which defines a lobbyist as someone who is paid and spends at least a certain amount of time and/or money lobbying.

It’s widely recognized that Hawaii’s lobbyist law is a mess. The State Ethics Commission has publicly discussed the problems of enforcing the law’s requirements on several occasions. Unfortunately, SB3024, which would have provided funding for a task force to review the lobbyist provisions, appears to have died in conference.

In any case, thanks to the Sunlight Foundation for their excellent review of the issues.