With Reservations

10557417_10152641776989225_8612604521508992757_nIn an institution that is steeped both in tradition [1] and strategy, it can be very confusing for a political outsider as to what votes count toward an elected officials “record”.  With duties to support or oppose legislation, elected officials are also obligated to “fix” bad legislation.  As a result, “yes” and “no” votes get further blurred [2] when elected officials vote “with reservations” – making the context of these votes all the more important.

When elected officials vote on a bill, they are only voting on the version that is before them.  For example, HB459 is very different from HB459 HD2.  The HD2 is short for “House Draft 2” and signifies that changes have been made to the original version.  The change from HB459 to HB459 HD1 removed the controversial opt-out provision for sex education programs in public schools – the very same provision that led people to call it “The Pono Choices Bill”.  This same language was omitted in the HD2.  In fact, the bill was strengthened when “monogamy” was added as an additional topic for public school sex education programs.

With the removal of the “opt-out” provision, all parents will still have to “opt-in” to any sex education program in their child’s public education (per Dept. of Education rules).  For this very reason, many representatives who opposed Pono Choices might now vote “yes” or “with reservations”.  HB459 is no longer “the Pono Choices Bill” but just HB459 HD2.

To be clear, the version in front of legislators on 2nd and 3rd reading was not “The Pono Choices Bill”, but a bill now with no reference at all to the controversial sex education program.

A vote “with reservations” counts as a “yes” vote in the final tally, but is a flag in the official legislative record that a representative has concerns or issues with the bill in front of them.  The core issue with HB459 HD2 now is whether sex education should be taught at elementary schools – should sex education be taught to 5th graders? [3]

A “no” vote could be fairly interpreted as “No, sex education should not be taught at elementary schools”.  A vote “with reservations”, however, might support the intent of the bill – to ensure children receive sex education rather than learning it from their friends or from television – but they are looking for the elementary school provision to be removed.  Courtesy Beth Fukumoto Chang:

The bill is troubling because it includes elementary school, but there is still time to change it. This early in the process, a NO vote would mean that I would lose my opportunity to continue working to fix the problems and that only proponents of the bill would have a seat at the table moving forward. That would only make it harder to protect the interests of Hawaii’s families. [4]

A reading of the bill confirms that HB459 HD2 is still a work-in-progress.  A strategy legislators use to force discussion on a bill is to fiddle with the effective date of a bill – the date the bill will take effect if passed by the Legislature.  Sometimes the effective date is July 1st (the beginning of state government’s fiscal year) of the same year, and sometimes it is “immediately”.  Going down to section 4 of HB459 HD2:

SECTION 4.  This Act shall take effect on July 1, 2050.

This date will have to be changed for the bill to take effect, ensuring that the bill is further discussed, and that it cannot become law without coming back to the House for Final Reading.  Whether it includes the controversial “elementary school provision” remains to be seen.  Since HB459 HD2 is not a final draft, voting “with reservations” is entirely appropriate to keep a seat at the table to try to remove the “elementary school” provision in Conference Committee.

A vote “with reservations” at this stage is not a validation of the controversial and misleading Pono Choices program – that judgment should be reserved for the Final Reading of the bill. What is clear though is continuing to refer to HB459 HD2 as the “Pono Choices Bill” is misleading at best – but is more accurately irresponsible.

There is no easy answer to what a vote “with reservations” means – only that every vote must be taken in context of when the vote was taken.  Only on a bill’s final [5] reading does a vote “with reservations” still count as a “yes” during election season.  Until then, the only way to know what reservations an elected official has is to ask them yourself.

[1] In committee hearings and often on 1st, 2nd or 3rd readings, many majority members will vote “with reservations” out of deference to the chair of the committee.  Committee chairs (sometimes) work hard on difficult bills that need to get out the door.  In recognition of this effort, they will vote “with reservations” rather than “no”.  In this sense, “with reservations” is a symbolic vote done out of tradition and respect for a colleague.

[2] Hyper-partisan groups (liberal Democrats, Tea Party Conservatives, etc.) on either side of the political spectrum rely on black and white labels to force moderates into one camp or the other.  The rationale is “you are either for us, or against us”.  While not perfect, it is this blog’s intent to avoid this tactic.

[3] HB459 requires “medically accurate” sex education at elementary, middle, intermediate, high and alternative schools.  It also permits the Dept. of Education to modify or eliminate such programs for reasons of age appropriateness.

[4] If you have the stomach to read an entire Horns of Jericho blog post, you might be interested in what Fukumoto Chang has to say about her vote, and the necessary gamesmanship that is involved to ensure that the best interests of families and people of faith are protected.  Fukumoto Chang is right in that the interests of families may be better served at this point of the game with a vote of “with reservations” to keep a seat at the discussion table and to possibly shape the final product.  While often at odds with the Minority Leader, this blog applauds Fukumoto Chang’s rationale and leadership displayed by her explanation.

[5] Without going into the complexities of the Legislative process, the vote that counts is made the last time (final) that a bill is voted on in its chamber – most often this if Final Reading, but in a fewer number of instances it is 3rd reading.