Legislative Primer #101

A testifier stated at a recent legislative hearing, “I’m very happy to participate in this process because I was born in a country where this is not possible.”

With this very sobering thought in mind, I encourage all to take ownership of our government, learn about the issues and participate in the process.

The Hawaii 2020 legislative session is off and running. The official “60 day” session will actually last until May 7, where it will be “sine die” unless formally extended.

Thousands of bills have been introduced, hundreds of public hearings will be held over the coming months, and at the end of the day upon approval by the governor 200 to 300 of these bills will pass into law. Most of the measures debated and passed will be “tweaks and adjustments” to existing law. Some will be consequential but many, perhaps most will be not.

Although some bills may appear at first glance to be insignificant to the majority of us, they very well may be critically important to specific individuals, groups or a particular class of individuals (various professions etc). It’s also safe to say, that whenever a bill is passed into law, someone’s ox is gored. There is a price to pay for every piece of legislation, and there are two or more sides to every argument for and against.

Living on a neighbor-island, our participation as citizens is limited to emailing testimony, and or meeting with our own District State Representative and Senator. During the legislative session, our Senator’s and Representatives spend the majority of their time at the State Capitol on Oahu which means our direct communication is often limited to telephone and email.

But make no mistake about it – your voice matters. It especially matters to your District’s Representative or Senator who depends on your vote to be reelected. And it matters to the Chair of the Committee hearing the bill, who will at the end of the day “tally up the testimony” into neat piles labeled “support and oppose” – numbers matter.

An essential tool for anyone who desires to embrace their civic responsibility fully is the Capitol website, capitol.hawaii.gov (editor note…please spell out). This website provides access to all legislation and can be searched by “key word” (agriculture, tax, education, drugs etc) and by “bill number” (HB19XX or SB19BB etc).

HB stands for House Bill and SB for Senate Bill. Bills are proposed laws. Once a bill is passed by both “bodies” (House and Senate) and signed by the Governor, it becomes law and is considered an “Act”, and given yet another number.

Once a bill number is identified, the bill can be read in its entirety on the Capitol website. In addition, automatic hearing notices can be requested and testimony provided – from this same website. In addition, a complete record of the bills “progress” through the system is also easily accessible, including copies of all testimony and a complete record of all votes cast by legislators.

First determine your priority issues, then do a “word search” and locate the bills that might interest you (hint choose those with a 2020 date). Next, request hearing notification of those bills, and when hearings are scheduled – submit your testimony!

Another option – you can request to be notified of all hearings being held by a specific “subject matter committee”, say agriculture if that is where your interest is.

Then, every time the agriculture committee schedules a hearing (on any and all bills) you will be automatically notified and provided an agenda (where you can review/read all bills). If the committee agenda contains items of interest, then once again the option to present testimony is available and easy to implement.

To further sharpen your ability to target issues especially important to you, consider joining an organization that shares your “subject matter focus”. For an example the Sierra Club is the main organization for general issues pertaining to the environment. There are many different organizations covering a wide range of subject matter and most of them have “legislative committees” who track and monitor legislation that impacts their particular focus. These committees will do much of the homework for you and send you “action alerts” when issues come up that need attention such as testimony etc.

I encourage all to take ownership of your government, visit the Capitol website, join an organization that you can support and begin engaging in the civic process. It’s much easier than you might think, it can be fun and entertaining, and your testimony and your involvement can truly make a difference.

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Gary Hooser formerly served in the Hawaii State Senate, where he was Majority Leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the 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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