Now is when our legislators reveal themselves

The 2020 legislative session is only a few weeks old, and that puts us at a strange place in the life cycle of the Legislature. 

As the session goes on and deadlines for hearings and votes come closer, the Legislature tends to focus on the big issues for the year. That’s when we hear about the tax increases, new projects or significant policy issues.

However, early in the session is when government watchdogs get to observe the true nature of our state lawmakers. Unfortunately, the view from this vantage point isn’t always pretty. This is when nanny-state proposals, unconstitutional overreach bills and social engineering schemes thrive. This is the time when trendy political fads and California-copycat bills get full committee hearings.

This year, the urge to regulate every element of our lives is a popular theme at the Legislature. There’s SB2453, which uses energy efficiency as an excuse to legislate the exact temperature of all state buildings, declaring that no one can set the air conditioning lower than 73 degrees. 

Yes, the power of the state legislative process is being used to settle thermostat disputes.

Then there’s SB2636 and companion bill HB2720, which use “gender equity” as the justification for imposing a quota of female directors on the board of any publicly held domestic or foreign corporation with a principal executive office located in Hawaii. The fine for noncompliance is $100,000 for the first offense and $500,000 for subsequent violations. I’ll let you be the judge of whether this law would be more likely to achieve gender equality or chase executive offices out of the state.

But no bill exemplifies the truly bizarre types of bills that we so often see at this time of year more than the original version of HB2540. Though it has now been transformed into an unspecified excise tax on cigarettes, the first version of HB2540 was basically an audacious attempt to ban cigarettes altogether. 

The bill proposed increasing the age at which one could legally buy cigarettes and e-cigarettes to at least 30 years old in 2021, then to age 40 in 2022, 50 in 2023, 60 in 2024, and by 2025, 100 years old! The fine for breaking the law would have been $500.

The House Health Committee report on the new version of the bill simply states that an excise tax is a good way to deter smoking. It does not go into the absurdity of a bill that would have raised the age for purchasing cigarettes to 100 over a five-year period.

So why do these odd, overreaching or questionable bills matter if they don’t survive the hearing process? 

Because this is the time when your legislators reveal what they really want. This is when we find out what they might choose to pass if they weren’t constrained by practical, political or constitutional limitations. 

A legislator who chooses to sponsor heavy, nanny-state regulations is making an important statement about the role of government. The fact that the bill in question didn’t pass, or wasn’t intended to pass without amendment, shouldn’t matter when it comes to evaluating that statement.

It’s a relief to know that none of these bills will look the same if they ever get to the governor’s desk, but it’s still important to know how they began. 

If we want to see real change in Hawaii, we should pay attention to what our lawmakers want when they initially submit their bills. When the first hearings of the year are full of big-government proposals, it’s a sign that we’re heading in the wrong direction.

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