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Turning Ideas into Laws

When it comes to government affairs, Molokai community members often say they feel overlooked. The travel challenges of having county and state headquarters on different islands create fewer chances to meet officials in person. However, residents still have the power to influence government, explained former legislative aide Keanu Young, who held a workshop on Molokai last Thursday to show the community how they can make their voices and ideas heard.

“In a democracy, power is really invested in the people, and we want to remind people that they do have power,” said Young. “Our job is to give you the tools you need to understand the process and help you use those tools to communicate with your legislators.”

Now is the best time to bring ideas to legislators, explained Young, the assistant coordinator for the Capitol Building’s Public Access Room (PAR), where people can access reference materials, watch public hearings and work with expert staff to understand issues.

In January, lawmakers will buckle down for four months of intensive bill review. Young explained that late summer and fall is when they have the most time to talk with constituents. He showed residents how to take advantage of these opportunities.

“Every bill starts with an idea to make life better,” said Young. “First identify the problem and what you’re trying to accomplish.”

He recommended bringing the idea to a senator or representative who’s had success with similar bills in the past. Legislators can have it drafted and introduced at the beginning of the session. The bill must pass three readings by the legislature, as well as undergo review by committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Lastly, the governor must sign it into law.

Resident and workshop attendee Flame Makahanaloa explained that one of her biggest frustrations is seeing bills getting overhauled and straying from the original intent.

“Sometimes because they have to pass it real fast, sometimes they change it and we don’t know,” said Makahanaloa.

It is a reality, acknowledged Young, but “doesn’t happen as often as people think.”

Residents can take action to ensure that their bill—and its original idea—stays intact. When a bill is first read in the legislature, it’s referred to committees, such as Hawaiian affairs, agriculture or education. Young explained that most of the research and edits are done in committees, which hold public hearings each meeting. For Molokai residents, traveling to Oahu is not always possible, so testimony through phone or writing prove the best options.

To make a letter effective, keep it to one or two pages, put it in your own words and be courteous, suggested Young. Oral testimony should also be kept short, two to three minutes. Residents have 48 hours before a public hearing to submit testimony, but if a person just misses the testimony deadline, Young recommended turning it in anyway.

He added that legislators have discussed the possibility of setting up live video testimony in the future, to allow neighbor island residents to deliver their testimony as they would in person.

The Hawaii State Legislature website, capitol.hawaii.gov, has numerous features that allow residents on any island to keep an eye on bills. On the website, residents can find contact information for their district legislators, check on the latest drafts of important bills, submit written testimony and sign up for notifications.

The reality is that usually seven to nine percent of the 3,000-4,000 bills introduced in January become law, according to Young. However, a dead bill often gets a second chance at life. New legislative sessions start every odd year and last for two years. Bills that didn’t pass in 2015 will again be reviewed in 2016.

“Everybody has to pick and choose what battles you going fight, what’s important to you,” said resident Nanette Granbusch. “First you have to know how to go about participating in government … then taking that action and after that living with whatever the results are. And the other great thing about a democracy is you can always change it.”

To access resources and documents from this workshop, visit lrbhawaii.org/par.

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