Hawaii Legislative Primer #3 – passing a bill

Jan. 16 is opening day of the Hawaii State Legislature. The legislative session will run for “60 session days” and adjourns on May 2 “sine die.”

During the legislative session, thousands of “bills” will be introduced and several hundred will attempt to navigate the process in a treacherous upstream salmon-like journey toward possibly becoming law, or death.

A bill is a proposed law and nothing more.

For those residents interested in “citizen based advocacy,” the below may be helpful. While only legislators may introduce bill’s, individual residents can usually find a willing legislator who will introduce a bill on their behalf or “upon request.”

To pass a bill into law, the recipe and ingredients are as follows:

Proposed policy change must be “Ripe”:

A significant percent of the general community must be aware of the issue and generally acknowledge there is a problem that needs to be solved.

The proposed policy must have been previously “vetted,” proposed in previous legislative sessions, and/or passed into law in other states or municipalities.

The proposal must be perceived as having the potential to have significant and tangible impact on the problem/issue being addresses.

Legislators are hugely busy with thousands of competing issues and priorities. Public acknowledgement of the problem needing to be solved, and consequently public support for the bill is essential.

Legislators are not big fans of risk taking. Therefore, if the proposed policy has been implemented in some other jurisdiction or state and potential unintended consequences vetted, the issue is much more likely to be deemed “safe” and then much more likely to pass into law.

Bills and public policy making is about finding solutions to problems. Just shouting “fix it” or beating a drum about affordable housing or homelessness, does not result in the passage of legislation. The proposal must propose a tangible and significant solution to at least key components of the problem

2) The proposal must have a “core” advocacy base:

The base must be anchored by an established advocacy organization that can provide administrative support and some funding.

The advocacy organization must be supported by a core group individuals (volunteers and staff) committed to putting in the time and effort needed to see the campaign through to its successful conclusion.

The advocacy base must be broad reaching across islands and demographics

Advocates have to be informed and educated on the subject matter, policy basics.

A single individual or even a small group with a good idea, are normally not enough. However when joined by established organizations such as the Hawaii Sierra Club for environmental issues, or Hawaii AppleSeed for economic justice issues – the issue and bill can quickly gain traction and credibility.

While the organizations name and administrative support are crucial, likewise are the volunteers and grassroots advocates who must back up the effort via testimony (both in person and via email).

Thirty percent of the legislators are from the neighbor islands. Testimony and support must come from all islands, and a wide range of demographics. And advocates must take the time to learn the facts, understand the data supporting (and opposing) their proposal. FAQ sheets are essential.

3) The core advocacy base, must have collaborative partners willing to testify in support.

Example: For SB3095 and related pesticide bills, support was provided by the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Hawaii Nurses Association, the Sierra Club and many other organizations.

Ideally, the public policy being proposed has so-called “main stream institutional support.” While the initial proponents might be wild eyed activists with purple mohawks, unfortunately these types of individuals do not make the best testifiers.

A brief look at history will show clearly that all great movements and changes to public policy were in fact initiated by the firebrands. Those willing to march and to carry signs and yes, to get arrested sometimes, are the ones who force the issue to the forefront.

However, pushing something to the forefront of the publics consciousness is only the first half of the task. It is a critically important part, but it is not enough to take the issue, the bill or the public policy change, all away across the finish line.

While “dealing with the opposition” will be discussed in a future column, suffice it to say that they will not have many crazy activists testifying from within their ranks. The status quo, is by definition, well it is the status quo.

They do not want change and they will fight until the end to keep change from happening (except of course “their change”). They will also show up with stacks of data, and a long line of experts who will testify on their behalf.

To close the deal, the proposal must have so-called mainstream, institutional support. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners etc, all have far more credibility with legislators than that activist with the purple mohawk who started it all. Sad but true.

At the end of the day it is simply a battle. While “war metaphors’ are somewhat distasteful, that is really what we are dealing with. While you don’t have to have more data, more research or more institutional support than the opposition, you have to at least hold your own in these departments.

You must hold your own with the basics, and you must win overwhelmingly in the field of public support and sentiment. You do this and you win.


Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.


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