A former University of Hawaii regent is suing the state over a bill signed into law this year by Gov. David Ige that downsized the Board of Regents from 15 to 11 members.
Jeff Portnoy, in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Hawaii, argues that passage of Act 172 was unconstitutional because the contents of the measure didn’t receive three readings in the House and Senate as required under the Hawaii Constitution. Rather, the bill underwent what is referred to as a “gut and replace” late in this year’s legislative session. The controversial, though not unusual tactic, is when the original contents of a bill are replaced with completely new language.
In this case, the bill was stripped 48 hours before passage.
“Deceptive practices that radically change bills before the final vote deny the public any meaningful voice in the legislative process and reflect a fundamentally undemocratic disregard for citizen voters,” according to the complaint, which describes the “gut and replace” tactic as a “legislative shell game that confounds the public.”
Portnoy, who is an attorney but is being represented by Eric Seitz, further argues that the measure overstepped the autonomy of the University of Hawaii.
Portnoy and Seitz told reporters today that the Legislature has a long history of attacking the independence of the university — such as inserting earmarks into the university’s budget and pressuring it to relocate or open schools in certain areas.
Portnoy said he repeatedly spoke out about the Legislature’s undue influence on the university during the five years that he served as a regent.
“There were multiple things that happened that I thought we needed to poke the bear and I was told by other regents and administrators, ‘Don’t poke the bear,’” said Portnoy. “And I said, you know what the bear’s been poked and the bear is eating us alive. So I got the opportunity when this bill passed to do something that I couldn’t do as a regent.”
Portnoy was actively seeking reappointment this year when Act 172 became law, eliminating the seat he was seeking. But he told reporters that he had nothing personally to gain from the lawsuit.
“My chances of the governor nominating me and the Legislature approving me are less than zero,” he said, noting that suing the state was unlikely to endear him to lawmakers.
Serving on the Board of Regents is unpaid.
Leaders in the Senate, where the bill underwent the “gut and replace” could not immediately be reached for comment.
Portnoy, whose specialities include media law, has represented various local media outlets including the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.