Groups sue to stop ‘gut and replace’ at Hawaii Legislature

  • In this Jan. 17, 2018 file photo, members of the public look down into the House chamber at the Hawaii State Legislature in Honolulu. Two government watchdog groups are suing the state of Hawaii for enacting legislation without giving the public the proper chance to weigh in. The League of Women Voters of Honolulu and Common Cause filed the lawsuit challenging the "gut-and-replace" legislation in state court on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File)

HONOLULU — Two government watchdog groups on Wednesday sued Hawaii for enacting legislation without giving the public the proper chance to weigh in.

The complaint from the League of Women Voters of Honolulu and Common Cause challenges the legislative practice known as “gut and replace.” It refers to lawmakers stripping a bill of its original content and substituting it with something entirely different.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in Hawaii, Common Cause Hawaii Executive Director Corie Tanida said. She’s unaware of similar challenges in other states.

Gut and replace “cuts the public out of the process. We need a fair and transparent process. This is a democracy,” Tanida said. “People should be able to participate, and their voice should be heard and counted.”

The lawsuit mentions one law enacted this year that started out relating to recidivism and inmate rehabilitation but ended up being about building schools to withstand hurricanes.

The watchdog groups want the court to void that law and declare the process used to adopt it unconstitutional.

James Walther, special assistant to the state attorney general, said his office needs to review the complaint so it would be premature for him to comment.

Senate President Ron Kouchi didn’t immediately return an email message and phone call seeking comment. House Speaker Scott Saiki was unavailable for comment.

The legislation in the lawsuit was originally introduced in January to the state Senate as a bill that would require the state to prepare an annual report on recidivism and inmate rehabilitation. Two Senate committees and the full Senate passed the bill, with amendments related to annual reports and the pretrial detainees.

On March 21, a House committee replaced its contents to recommend that all new state buildings include hurricane shelter space. Another House committee passed this version without amending it. The full House passed it the following month.

The final version agreed on by both chambers requires the state to consider building schools capable of withstanding hurricanes. The governor signed the bill in June.

Hawaii isn’t the only state where lawmakers use this tactic. In other states, the maneuver is known as “gut and stuff” or “gut and amend.”

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have for years tried to bring attention to the practices by bestowing a “Rusty Scalpel Award” on the most egregious examples.

In 2016, it gave the honor to a bill that would have given a tax credit to renewable fuels but morphed into a tax credit for organic food.

Two years earlier, the winner was a bill that would have allocated $3 million in hotel tax revenues to a multi-purpose conservation fund but that ultimately became legislation to refinance Hawaii Convention Center debt.

Tanida said gut-and-replace maneuvers confuse, frustrate and disappoint the public. “They think their bill is doing so good and then they don’t know what happened. It’s completely changed, and they had no say in it,” she said.

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