Kevin Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

The 28th Hawai‘i state Legislature is currently in session at the State Capitol in downtown Honolulu. As mandated by Hawai‘i’s constitution, the Legislature convenes each year at 10 a.m. on the third Wednesday in January, which this year fell on Jan. 21.

Opening day at the Legislature is usually a mix of formality, business, idealism, entertainment, socializing and even some activism. Although it is a time when smiles, inspiring words and the scent of sweet lei fill the chambers of the state House of Representatives and the state Senate, opening day also marks the start of 60 days of enacting laws with input from concerned citizens who take the time to get involved in the democratic process.

Hawai‘i’s Legislature is a part-time lawmaking body, meaning legislators meet for only part of the year. This year’s session is scheduled to adjourn on May 7. From the start of the session, until adjournment, legislators must decide which bills to pass into law.

Sessions begins in odd-numbered years and last for two years. Thus, the 28th Legislature includes both the 2015 and 2016 sessions. Bills still “alive” at the conclusion of an odd-numbered year are carried over to the next session. So the 29th Legislature will begin in 2017, and the 30th in 2019.

The 51 members of the House and 25 in the Senate are elected by voters in their respective districts (unless appointed by the governor due to unusual circumstances). Their decisions will affect the lives of Hawai‘i’s citizens — and, in some instances, even visitors — in large and small ways.

Here is an example: In 1970, the Hawai‘i Legislature became the first in the nation to legalize abortion, even before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the landmark Roe v. Wade case in 1973, essentially declaring that a woman has a constitutional right to get an abortion early in her pregnancy. In Hawai‘i, lawmakers grappled with this highly controversial issue. Some weighed their own personal beliefs against the interests of the public and the democratic process. The late Gov. John A. Burns, a devout Catholic who personally opposed abortion, allowed the bill to become law without his signature. Despite intense pressure from special interests to veto the bill, he declined to do so.

In an eloquent statement that he released at the time, Gov. Burns explained: “I have made my decision. I stand by it. It is the decision of the Governor of Hawai‘i, not the private and personal whim of John A. Burns. It reflects my best judgment as Governor, made after consultation with the best minds in the State, in regard to what is in the best interest of all the people of Hawai‘i.”
And, thus, House Bill 61 became Act 1 of 1970. Today, that law is HRS 453-16 of the Hawai‘i Revised Statutes, a collection of state laws that are accessible via the internet at
Gov. Burns wasn’t the only elected official who searched his conscience before deciding how to act regarding the bill legalizing abortion in Hawai‘i.

Sen. Vincent Yano, a Harvard Law School graduate and, like Burns, a devout Catholic, chaired the Senate Public Health Committee in 1970, according to his obituary in the Honolulu Advertiser. Although Yano had serious reservations about the bill and could have stopped it from moving forward in his capacity as a committee chair, he eventually decided to support a repeal of Hawai‘i’s then-century-old law prohibiting abortion.

Opening day at the Legislature is usually a mix of formality, business, idealism, entertainment, socializing — and even some activism. “Save Hawaii from Monsanto” protesters were visible on opening day to bring attention to issues pertaining to genetically modified organisms and pesticide use. (Photo by Kevin Kawamoto)
Opening day at the Legislature is usually a mix of formality, business, idealism, entertainment, socializing — and even some activism. “Save Hawaii from Monsanto” protesters were visible on opening day to bring attention to issues pertaining to genetically modified organisms and pesticide use. (Photo by Kevin Kawamoto)

According to his obituary, Yano stated at the time: “After much reading and soul-searching, I am personally moving strongly towards the position that the present law should be repealed and abortion should not be a matter of legislation but a question of conscience between mother and doctor.”

Yano died in 2005. Among his survivors were 10 children and 19 grandchildren.

Author and historian Tom Coffman, who covered state government for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and, subsequently, the Honolulu Advertiser, was quoted in Yano’s obituary, saying: “He made the painful conclusion that the law should not impose moral and religious values on people’s practices.”

Today, legislators continue the often-laborious and complex process of creating or changing the rules that govern the conduct of people who live in Hawai‘i. Jan. 29 was the cut-off date to introduce bills for consideration by the 28th Legislature. As of this writing, there were 1,515 bills introduced in the House of Representatives and 1,379 bills introduced in the Senate, for a total of 2,894 bills that lawmakers will consider. Now comes the arduous task of deciding which of those 2,894 bills will pass both houses of the Legislature and advance to Gov. David Ige’s desk for his signature.

The governor can also choose the bills he does not agree with or finds legally flawed. He can also let the bill become law without his signature, as Gov. Burns did in 1970. Not every bill introduced makes it to the governor’s desk — many will die.

There are many ways for a bill to die during the legislative session. Following the life (and often death) of a bill that you care about can be an informative, if not excruciating, exercise.

Most bills are introduced by legislators, or are introduced at the request of a constituent. The governor can also request that a bill or bills be considered by the Legislature. Each bill is given a number, such as HB 100 if it originated in the House, or SB 100 if it originated in the Senate. Thus begins the journey of this bill. The speaker of the House, or the Senate president, assigns the bill to one or more committees. Those committee chairs can schedule a hearing to receive testimony from anyone wishing to speak to the merits or shortcomings of the bill. Committee chairs can also choose not to hear a bill at all, or to take no action on a bill indefinitely, effectively killing it so that it cannot progress to the next stages of the legislative process that will lead to the governor’s desk. That is why committee chairs are considered to be powerful positions.

Bills that continue to pass through their assigned committees and make it to a vote by the full membership of the House, or Senate, then “cross over” to the Senate and vice versa. If there are differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, representatives of the two bodies try to resolve them in conference committees as the legislative session enters its final stretch. If both the House and the Senate can agree on the revised language of a bill, the measure is scheduled for a final vote in both the House and the Senate. If it passes, the bill is sent to the governor’s office for his or her signature.

Some of the bills introduced are identical or similar to each other. At some point, their language may be combined. Or, if one bill dies in the House, the other bill may survive in the Senate.
Of the nearly 3,000 bills introduced this year, the news media will pay attention to only a fraction of them. Reporters will scour through all the bills and find the ones that seem to have the greatest impact on the public or would be the most interesting.

The public can access information on any bill, though, but only if a person is willing to do his or her own research. Every bill posted online also includes a timeline of its status and other information, such as scheduled hearing dates. You can access public testimony on bills by visiting If you do not have access to the internet, you can visit the Public Access Room (Room 401) at the State Capitol, where the staff and volunteers can provide various types of assistance. They can help you access bills and/or help you submit testimony — in writing or in person, or both — supporting or opposing a bill. They’ll also let you know when and where public hearings will be held on a specific bill.

One of the bills attracting attention this year is Senate Bill 296, “Relating to Caregiving.” The bill would require hospitals to “provide patients the opportunity to designate a caregiver upon entry to a hospital. Establishes hospital requirements regarding caregivers, including designation of a caregiver, notification to a caregiver (regarding when a care recipient is to be discharged), and a discharge plan for patients.”

The bill was one of several introduced by Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, chair of the Human Services and Housing Committee, and co-signed by seven other senators. The first public hearing on this particular version of the bill (it existed in a similar version prior to this session) was held Feb. 3 and attracted a standing-room-only crowd. Written testimony was submitted by dozens of people, many of whom also appeared in person to make public comments. Sens. Chun Oakland and Josh Green, chair of the Health Committee and an emergency room physician, presided over the hearing.

Strong support for the bill came from AARP. Many AARP members wore red T-shirts with the organization’s logo on the front. Community organizations that work with elders, including a number of government elderly affairs agencies, submitted written testimony supporting the bill.

However, the measure is strongly opposed by some powerful business interests in Hawai‘i, including the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, Healthcare Association of Hawaii (a trade organization), the Queen’s Health Systems and other hospitals. Their representatives, which include hospital executives, nurses, physicians and social workers, said that although they support the idea of providing more training for caregivers, they did not think the bill was the right vehicle to accomplish that, saying it could create delays in patient discharges when beds are urgently needed for other patients waiting to be admitted to the hospital.

The bill’s supporters feel that now is the time to pass a bill that would create, in AARP’s words, “a minimum, consistent level of support to all family caregivers from all hospitals throughout the state.”

Both sides seem to agree that such training is important. Where and how to best deliver that support is the big question.

Among those speaking in support of the bill was retired state Sen. Fred Rohlfing, whose testimony moved those in the hearing room. Rohlfing was a prominent Republican senator in the 1970s. He spoke about his late wife Patty, who died in December 2011 after being discharged from — and then readmitted to — a hospital after developing medical complications. Sen. Rohlfing said he believes his wife was discharged prematurely from an O‘ahu hospital. In his testimony, he also called for hospital emergency rooms statewide to be staffed with patient advocates, which has been proposed in other bills before this year’s legislature. Sen. Rohlfing moved about the hearing room with the aid of a walker and revealed that he wasn’t sure he was going to make it to the hearing that day due to his own medical emergency the night before requiring hospitalization. But he said he was determined to be there and concluded his testimony by saying, “My wife Patty is smiling.”

Audrey Suga-Nakagawa, who is active in the community that promotes services and programs for older adults, testified about her own experience as a caregiver to her parents. She shared her personal experience with an erroneous hospital discharge order for her father that was corrected at the last minute, narrowly averting her father’s discharge. He died five days later.

Suga-Nakagawa supports SB 296, calling it a “pragmatic approach in trying to engage, educate and train our caregivers,” who are helping to take care of their loved ones as they get discharged from the hospital. Suga-Nakagawa acknowledged that there are service providers in the community that can provide some assistance, but they are in high demand and they take time to access. SB 296, she said, honors caregivers and gives them the training and preparation they need until they can take their family member to the doctor for a follow-up examination or arrange for additional services.

After hearing from all those wishing to testify and reviewing the submitted written testimony, the committee decided to defer action on the bill until Feb. 6. However, on Feb. 6, it was learned that the bill was deferred yet again, although no date was provided. It is likely the bill will not move forward this session.

Sen. Chun Oakland reminded those attending the Feb. 3 hearing on SB 296 that there are other bills before the Legislature that address “kupuna (elder) care.” In fact, she helped organize and currently co-convenes the Kupuna Caucus, which is a means for legislators to meet with community members who are interested in helping older adults in various ways and in sharing knowledge and insights. Sen. Les Ihara Jr. and Rep. Gregg Takayama are co-conveners of the Kupuna Caucus, with more than a dozen other legislators listed as members. They meet regularly with the community, particularly with organizations that work with older adults, and share ideas and collect information to prepare for upcoming legislation. Information on kupuna-related legislation can be found by searching for “Kupuna Caucus” on the website, or by visiting the Public Access Room at the Capitol for those who cannot access the internet.

“The people’s business” is conducted at the State Capitol, and the public should always feel free to scrutinize what their elected officials are doing. As a teacher, I always encourage my students to visit the Capitol when the Legislature is in session. I tell them to observe from the gallery as their legislators deliberate bills, or to sit in on committee hearings and testify if they feel strongly about a measure (but do their research first!), and keep informed of current events, because the news media should be our eyes and ears where the people’s business is concerned. Learn about the democratic process, get involved and maybe even run for political office.

It has become almost fashionable in some circles to arbitrarily criticize politicians as “self-serving” or worse. But when you take a close look at what they do on a day-to-day basis — the number of meetings they sit through, the various special interests competing for their attention and support, the bills and issues they and their staff need to educate themselves about, the need to think about re-election, the political maneuvering they must engage in with their colleagues and powerful forces of influence, and a growing segment of the population that often seems indifferent to their work or are generally antagonistic — it’s a wonder anyone would want to enter public service anymore.

Of course, there are politicians who fit the mold of society’s worst stereotypes of a politician. But it is unfair and counterproductive to paint all elected officials with a broad stroke. For one thing, it would discourage good, thoughtful, competent people from entering politics if they have other, perhaps more lucrative options — that would be unfortunate for society. Also, imagine having entered politics with an idealistic desire to enhance the lives of people that government is supposed to serve. You could eventually, perhaps even quickly, lose those ideals as you realize that the public has such low expectations of your performance and integrity.

The reality is that a lot of hard work goes on at the State Capitol when the Legislature is in session. Sometimes the work may be routine and perfunctory — perhaps a bill that proposes technical changes to an existing law that is otherwise uncontroversial. Other times, a bill can have profound implications for society on so many levels, as did the legalization of abortion in 1970 and, in December 2013, the legalization of same-sex marriage. Issues like these stir the passions and emotions of individuals who tie them to much larger philosophical, ideological and religious beliefs that speak to the core of one’s existence. Gov. Burns struggled to balance his personal beliefs with his reverence for democracy and the process that moved that bill from the legislative chambers to his desk.

Current lawmakers have their contemporary issues to think carefully about, everything from medical marijuana dispensaries, to gambling at the airport, to a measure that would protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. We hope they make good decisions on all of the bills and resolutions that pass before them this session.

Remember this, derived from an axiom that has been around for centuries, except not necessarily in these exact words: Government is not some alien and unfriendly creature that we as citizens observe from afar. The State Capitol is not a zoo, nor a place that needs to be feared or reviled. Get to know the place and the people who inhabit it so that you can be a part of the solutions your elected officials are trying to hammer out. Meet people there; find a voice. If nothing else, exercise your rights as citizens every two years in a way that will help keep democracy alive and strong in our society: Vote for people who you believe will use their political power to serve the best interests of the state now — and for future generations.

Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to the Herald and teaches at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.


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