Not as Crazy as it Looks

It seems that every session, legislative observers look for unusual bills that eventually get unexpected public attention. Last session it was The Aspartame Bill, this session it may be The Pit Bull Bill. Briefly, The Aspartame Bill would have banned all food products containing the artificial sweetener aspartame, found in such products as diet soft drinks, sugar free gums and candies, and the packaged sweetener Equal. It is known by its brand name, NutraSweet. It didn’t survive.

The Pit Bull Bill, this year’s SB79, would make it a misdemeanor to own or sell a pit bull dog. It has been getting fresh attention because of some recent incidents on O‘ahu involving pit bull bites. Needless to say, many of us have gotten calls and emails from people on both sides of the issue, some of whom thought the bill has already passed. It hasn’t, and it has little chance of making it very far.
Whatever these bills’ individual merits, their introduction and progress through the session offer important lessons on the legislative process and community involvement.

First, both bills show how residents with particular concerns can gain entry into the system. I introduced the aspartame bill last session "by request," as did Senate President Colleen Hanabusa this session with the pit bull bill. “By request” refers to a bill that a group or individual has asked a legislator to introduce, and that the requestor will support through the process.

Hawai‘i law does not include a form of initiative or referendum that allows citizens direct access to the legislative process. As a result, "by request" or "BR" bills represent a rare opportunity for interested citizens to propose legislation. This session, sixteen Senators have introduced over 425 bills by request, covering a broad range of topics. Also among those bills are laws proposed by the Governor’s office, the State Judiciary, and the mayors of Hawai‘i’s four counties.

The fact that a bill may represent an idea outside the public mainstream does not mean it does not warrant introduction. The broader idea behind the aspartame bill was that we need to be attentive to our food supply. The pit bull bill reminded us of our concern for safety, and the fact that we may face unexpected dangers. The bills also illustrate how quickly an idea can enter the public consciousness. Last year the aspartame bill got a hearing, which is not true for every bill introduced. The pit bull bill suddenly seemed prescient when two incidents involving the breed occurred on the very day that a story about the bill appeared in a daily newspaper.

Experience has shown that a new idea can take two to three years to move to the forefront. Perhaps deeper concerns about the quality of our foods and owners’ liability for their animals may be on their way into the broad public consciousness.
The thing to keep in mind is that the process of introducing bills by request gives those with emerging concerns a chance to bring them into the public arena, where they may seem less…unusual…down the road.

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