Campaign finance reform bill in House proposes public funding
House lawmakers are considering a dramatic change to how candidates run for public office in Hawaii: having the state pay for campaign costs.
House Bill 661 was temporarily deferred yesterday by the House Judiciary Committee, but Judiciary Chairman Tommy Waters said he wants to approve some change in campaign financing this year.
"Obviously there are concerns, but I want to pass something," said Rep. Waters (D, Lanikai-Waimanalo). "I am a supporter. I introduced it and I like it."
But the bill's supporters, who have lobbied for the bill for eight years, say publicly financing elections is a hard sell because it makes it easier for challengers to run against incumbent legislators.
"This is like trying to push water uphill. Obviously the public wants it and it is clear that many incumbent legislators don't," said Ira Rohter, University of Hawaii political scientist and board chairman of Hawaii Clean Elections.
The bill would create a way to publicly fund state House elections, although Waters said he might expand it to include Senate campaigns.
The bill this year has picked up some new supporters, including the leadership of the state Democratic Party.
"Comprehensive public financing of campaigns would allow legislators and candidates to spend more time working on issues and less time dialing for dollars," Mike McCartney, Democratic Party chairman, told the committee.
Barbara Polk, vice president for the Hawaii chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, also supported the campaign reform bill.
"We know that it is difficult for those of you currently in office to contemplate changing a system which has worked effectively for you," Polk said. "Public funding of election campaigns will lead to greater trust in elected officials, a wider pool of candidates, more vital political discourse and a more participatory democratic process."
Arizona, Maine and Connecticut have publicly funded elections.
Barbara Wong, state Campaign Spending Commission executive director, said the commission supports public campaign financing but has concerns about HB 661.
"The general public should be allowed to weigh in on this issue by voting on a constitutional amendment to authorize comprehensive public funding," Wong cautioned.
She said that when the state Constitution was changed in 1978 to permit partial public funding of campaigns, the Constitutional Convention delegates specifically said they did not intend to have elections completely funded by the public.
Waters said he would ask the state attorney general to research whether an amendment was needed before proceeding.
In other action yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee killed a proposal that would have made all state elections run by mail-in ballot only.
Waters said he didn't like the bill as much as a proposal that did pass, HB 764, that would allow voters to apply for permanent absentee voter status. Voters would automatically get an absentee ballot in the mail for each election. If they do not use the absentee ballot, they would still be allowed to vote at the polls on election day.