The Hawaiʻi State Legislature Kicked off on January 17
The Hawaiʻi State Legislature is one of the three branches of Hawaiʻi’s state government. The legislative branch makes laws, the executive branch implements and enforces the law, and the judicial branch interprets the law.
In Hawaiʻi, the State Legislature consists of 25 members in the Senate who serve staggered four-year terms and 51 members in the House of Representatives who are elected every two years. The legislature convenes every year from mid-January to early May to vote on the laws that will impact our communities (from healthcare to environmental protections) on a statewide scale. As community members, it is important to engage in the statewide lawmaking process. Our voices matter, and thereʻs no better place to ensure our voice is hear than at the state capitol.
What Happens During Opening Day?
In Hawaiʻi, the legislature convenes annually at 10:00am on the third Wednesday in January (January 17, 2024). During "opening day," the state capitol building is filled with community members, nonprofits, lobbyists, and activists who spend time stopping by the different lawmakers offices and sharing their priorities for the upcoming legislative session. The House and Senate also have opening remarks and sessions that set the tone for the next three months.
While much of it is rubbing shoulders and "schmoozing" with elected officials, Opening Day does allow nonprofits like Surfrider Foundation to share their top policy priorities directly with lawmakers. In addition to environmental groups like Surfrider Foundation, hundreds of people packed the capitol rotunda to advocate for their priorities - from supporting the Lāhainā community to addressing housing and healthcare issues.
Surfrider Foundation Hawaiʻi team meet with Senator Shimabukuro on Opening Day to discuss Surfriderʻs priority water quality monitoring bill. L-R: Lauren Blickley (Surfrider Foundation Hawaiʻi Regional Manager), Senator Maile Shimabukuro, Arleen Velasco (Surfrider Oʻahu Chapter Chair), and Camile Cleveland (Surfrider Oʻahu Chapter Policy Coordinator).
Opening Day is not, however, about introducing or writing legislation. Those efforts and meetings happen during "off session" (May-December). From September-December, Surfrider Foundation Hawaiʻi staff and volunteers work with partner groups to draft legislation. This draft legislation is then has to be "shopped around" to different lawmakers who agree to introduce the bill. We also use the fall to strategize about our previous session (what worked, what didn't, why our bills died, etc.) and prioritize our focus areas for the following year's session. To learn more about how the Hawai'i state legislature operates (and what's the difference between committees, chairs, speakers, and more), visit our Hawai'i Legislature 101 page.
Surfrider Hawaiʻi 2024 Legislative Priorities
As Surfrider Foundation, our efforts focus on the protection and enjoyment of our local ocean, waves, and beaches. To help meet this mission, our 2024 statewide legislative priorities focus on three main areas:
- Ensuring that the state of Hawaiʻi Department of Health monitors coastal water during both dry and wet conditions (including when the water is visibly brown or during active Brown Water Advisories)
- Reducing cesspool impacts and creating a new Cesspool Division within the Department of Health Wastewater Branch
- Protecting our sandy coastlines by limiting development in the sea level rise inundation zone and implementing adaptation pathways/longterm planning for our most vulnerable coastal areas.
We will also be supporting more general environmental protection efforts including bills that support funding for conservation and natural resource protection, as well as a Green Constitutional Amendment that would further solidify the stateʻs commitment to the protection of our natural resources. You can read more about our state level priorities on our legislation page.
Over 3,000 bills are introduced each session, with only a handful making it to the Governor's desk for signature. It can take a bill, on average, 3-5 years of being introduced and heard by the different committees. Furthermore, Hawai'i has been plagued with on going corruption challenges and practices like conference committees that can end bills behind closed doors without a public meeting or testimony. The chairs of the House Finance and Senate Ways and Means Committees (the two "money" committees that control the purse strings) also hold an enormous amount of power. If they don't like your bill, it can be tough luck!
Every year brings a new host of challenges and opportunities. And even if we don't have some of bills pass, they are an important part of starting the conversation with our politicians about what beach and ocean goers want to see for our shorelines.
Whatever happens at the state legislature this year, remember that the state capitol is YOUR capitol. The individuals who are passing bills and making laws represent the community, and they need to hear from US.
It is easier than ever to make your voice heard - and you can do it all from the comfort of your home computer or phone. Below are some steps to get started:
- Create an account at www.capitol.hawaii.gov. When a bill is open for testimony, you can use this link to submit written comments and/or sign up for oral testimony (via zoom or in-person). You can also watch the below video about how to submit testimony online. The capitol.hawaii.gov website is an incredible resource!
- Follow along with the session (and important dates) using the session calendar.
- Stay up-to-date with hearings, action alerts, and opportunities to testify by signing up for our weekly legislative newsletter (below!). This newsletter is only sent out during the legislative session.