Category Archives: lobbyists

Making sense of what was spent lobbying the legislature last year

In my Civil Beat column last week, I tried to do an overview of lobbying expenditures reported to the State Ethics Commission during 2016 (“Ian Lind: Tightening The Rules For Lobbyists/Lobbyists spent millions trying to influence lawmakers last year“).

I reported more than $5.3 million had been spent on legislative lobbying during the year, which seems like a substantial number. In the end, though, that total dropped to a bit under $5.3 million as a result of errors in the reports that were filed.

The column also reviews proposals from the ethics commission for clarifying reporting requirements in an attempt to close several loopholes that have been exploited by some to sidestep the disclosure requirements.

I would suggest that you at least skim the column, then return here for an explanation of what went into writing it and the problems I ran into.

First, I downloaded the latest version of the database of reported expenditures by organizations that retain lobbyists or are otherwise required to disclose their costs for influencing legislation, and then selected a subset containing all the reports for each of three reporting periods during 2016. These reports cover the periods January 1-February 28, March 1-April 30, and May 1-December 31. The legislature is in session during most of the first two periods.

When these are put online, the commission includes the amount reported for fees paid to lobbyists, and for the total of all categories of spending, in addition to the organization name, date filed, and other details. Also included is a link to the available pdf of the form.

During an initial pass examining the data, I noticed that several organizations submitted amended reports during the year. I went through each of those, and tried to make sense of the “amendments.” In some cases, the amendments appeared to simply be duplicates of the originals. In a few other cases, they reported new and presumably updated figures.

In one case–Outrigger Hotels–there were several amended disclosure forms filed, each containing the same numbers. On its face, it appeared Outrigger ranked #2 of all the organizations in spending, but several things stood out as warning flags that this might have been the result of errors. While I was working on my column, I tried reaching Max Sword, Outrigger’s in-house lobbyist. But Sword is also the current chair of the Honolulu Police Commission, which was meeting that same day, and I wasn’t able to reach him until the following day.

It turned out, according to Sword, that errors were made in the online process of filing these reports, resulting in errors. But although I suspected there were errors, at least in the case of Outrigger, I wasn’t able to confirm them prior to publication.

In any case, my next step was to add up the amounts reported in each of the three periods for each organization, and produced a list of the total amount spent by each group during 2016. Then I sorted these in descending order to give a quick list of the top spending lobbying groups.

I’m pretty sure that this is still a relatively good assessment of the overall situation. However, my “final” numbers changed when I made the correction for Outrigger, dropping it from #2 to #8 in the ranking.

Here’s a link to the full list of organizations and what they reported spending on lobbying at the legislature last year.

If you spot instances that deserve more attention, please leave a comment below. Thanks.

A heartfelt “Mahalo” to John Radcliffe!

Thank you, John.

You bravely spoke for many of us when you went public this week urging the state legislature to finally pass a “death with dignity” bill.

Your appeal was more powerful because you also publicly disclosed your own long battle with a Stage 4 cancer. It’s not just a political issue, it’s a deeply personal issue for you and, eventually, for each of us.

For those who don’t know John Radcliffe, he’s long been one of the islands’ top lobbyists. But he’s also been known for his straight talk, his willingness to openly discuss controversial issues with both friends and foes, avoiding political correctness in order to call things as he sees them. And if that sounds too serious, John has always displayed a fine sense of humor, a delight in irony, with a twinkle in his eye. Even when talking so intimately about death and dying.

Click here to watch the report broadcast by Hawaii News Now.

And for more information, visit the webpage of the Hawaii Death with Dignity Society.

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.