The state Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee will hear a bill on Tuesday to clarify the state’s gift law after several state lawmakers became concerned about the interpretation of the law by the state Ethics Commission.
Les Kondo, the new executive director of the Ethics Commission, has told lawmakers that they are unable to accept gifts from lobbyists or others seeking influence at the Legislature in excess of about $25. The restriction includes meals and free tickets to events, such as the annual leadership awards dinner of the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs, which was held last week.
The state law on gifts — on the books since 1972 — does not spell out a dollar amount, so the interpretation is up to Kondo and the Ethics Commission. One lawmaker who attended the House briefing said Kondo explained it this way: “A lobbyist can take you to Ryan’s but not to Alan Wong’s.”
Several lawmakers were under the impression that they could accept gifts from lobbyists up to $200 — the threshold for gift disclosure under a separate provision of state law. But the two provisions are distinct: the gift restriction is meant to discourage influence peddling; the gift disclosure requirement is to document gifts from sources that have business before the Legislature but are not expressly seeking to influence.
State House and Senate leaders decided to address the issue, and the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee found a vehicle by adding a proposed amendment to a bill on lobbying disclosure.
“We agreed that we needed to take a hard look at it and come up with some guidelines instead of having one person interpret it,” said state House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, (D-Halawa-Aiea), who has worked on the issue with state Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria, (D-Downtown, Waikiki).
The proposed bill would allow lawmakers to accept gifts of up to $200 — with an undetermined annual cap from a single source — even when it can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence.
The bill would also allow gifts of food or beverages; reasonable travel expenses for lawmakers to appear at events, provided that lawmakers notify leadership if the expenses exceed $500 and are paid by lobbyists; or tickets to events such as the HIPA dinner, although lawmakers would have to disclose such tickets when the value exceeds $200.
Common Cause Hawaii sent out a warning about the bill today and good-government advocates have started to attack the idea.
Kondo is expected to testify about his concerns with the proposed bill. In his written testimony, he said the bill would “allow legislators and state employees to accept significant and costly gifts that will likely cause substantial harm to the public’s perception of an ethical state government.”