State Policy Network
State spotlight: Reining in unchecked emergency powers in Hawaii

When is an emergency no longer an emergency? When does a pandemic become endemic?

Those were the questions on the minds of Americans across the country — especially in Hawaii — as we learned more about how to live with COVID-19 and treat the dangers related to it.

Hawaii had some of the strictest and longest-lasting coronavirus restrictions of any state in the nation. Given the chance by the state Legislature in 2022 to ease up on the restrictions, Hawaii’s former governor, Governor David Ige, refused to relinquish the emergency powers that he invoked in early 2020. But the lockdowns and restrictions coming from Gov. Ige’s emergency powers were more than annoyances; they cost Hawaii residents their jobs, livelihoods, and ways of life.

Because of the high costs of Hawaii’s unending “emergency,” the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii set out to reform the state’s emergency powers law. Properly dealing with an emergency can be done without eroding a state’s separation of powers, and the Grassroot Institute fought to prove that in the Aloha State.

Showing the costs of a perpetual emergency

As with almost every issue today, COVID-19 quickly became a political beast in the public discourse. To avoid getting bogged down in the political back-and-forth of pandemic debates, the Grassroot Institute didn’t publicly protest the lockdowns or restrictions themselves. Instead, it studied the root cause of Hawaii’s lockdown problems and developed a comprehensive report providing specific ways to restore Hawaii’s constitutional balance of powers and ensure individual liberty and government accountability.

Armed with its report titled, “Lockdowns versus Liberty: How Hawaii’s experience in 2020-21 Demonstrates the Need to Revise the State’s Emergency Powers,” the Grassroot Institute worked with members of Hawaii’s Legislature to reform the state’s emergency powers law during the 2021 legislative session. A bill containing many of the Institute’s recommendations was introduced during the session and almost made it to the governor’s desk but it died at the last minute in conference committee.

In the 2022 legislative session, the Institute took advantage of the lessons it had learned from the setbacks the year before.

In 2021, many Hawaii legislators had been reluctant to limit the governor’s emergency powers because they thought it would prevent the governor from responding appropriately to disasters such as volcanic eruptions, floods, and hurricanes. To combat this thinking, the Institute worked closely with influential legislators such as House Speaker Scott Saiki and Sen. Karl Rhoads to develop SB 3089, a bill that would allow the governor to effectively respond to natural disasters while also respecting Hawaii’s political balance of powers.

To garner the necessary support for SB 3089, the Institute produced a video interview with Hawaii business owner Bill Comerford. Comerford owned four iconic Irish-themed bars in Honolulu, but Comerford’s finances—and the jobs of the many people he employed—were virtually wiped out by coronavirus lockdowns. Comerford’s heart-wrenching story showed that the COVID-19 lockdowns had real impacts on people’s lives that could not be ignored.

The Institute also submitted in-depth, meaningful legislative testimonies and provided concrete amendments throughout the deliberations. Through its website, the Institute also helped hundreds of Hawaii residents contact their legislators to share their personal stories about why they supported SB 3089’s reforms.

In large part because of the Institute’s work, Hawaii’s Democratic supermajorities passed the bill and sent it to the governor’s desk to sign or veto.

Measuring impacts

Gov. Ige vetoed SB 3089, but because of the incredible advocacy and coalition-building around the bill, the Grassroot Institute—and any liberty-minded Hawaii resident—is now well positioned for future success. By lobbying legislators directly and testifying at committee hearings, the Institute gained recognition as a major voice in Hawaii public policy discussions.

The Institute’s campaign around SB3089 also led to collaborations with groups such as:

These unlikely partnerships have helped the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii develop a dialogue with other special interest groups in the state, as well as expand its audience to new groups of people. The Grassroot Institute is providing Hawaii residents with a voice for liberty and a check on the government’s power over people’s lives. And because of the Institute’s work on behalf of reforming the state’s emergency powers laws, a true debate about the proper role and power of government can now be had in the Aloha State.

States: Hawaii
Organization: State Policy Network