Publicly funded campaigns put voters ahead of lobbyists
THE people of Hawaii need and deserve the passage of a public campaign funding bill, now before the Legislature, that will allow candidates for political office to finance their campaigns without donations from powerful businesses.
I have had many years of involvement with the legislative process and with public issues touching many diverse and important matters, including, among others, auto insurance reform; health law reform, including the Patients' Bill of Rights and Responsibilities; gasoline price gouging, including the gasoline price cap; the threat of losing one of our daily newspapers and the resulting Save our Star-Bulletin campaign; and even the effort to preserve two competing airlines to serve Hawaii.
What I have come to learn is that Hawaii, mainly because of its geographical and temporal isolation from the rest of the nation, is especially vulnerable to the economic and financial influence and control of large and wealthy businesses, especially those that, for a variety of reasons, have developed monopoly, monopsony or oligopoly power within the state. Chevron, Gannett and the Hawaii Medical Services Association immediately come to mind.
I believe that Hawaii's relatively high cost of living compared with the mainland is largely a product of the free-wheeling exercise of economic power by these powerful organizations which, for well-understood reasons, act in the interests of their executives and their shareholders and, because the legal restraints are weak or nonexistent, gouge the hell out of the residents of this state.
I also believe that elected officials' heavy reliance on campaign contributions from powerful entities such as these help to provide these entities with soft and comfortable protective insulation from effective legislation and other action that might actually serve to protect our citizens and consumers from unfair and anti-competitive price gouging. Surely the best example I can think of is HMSA's success last year in allowing health insurance rate regulation -- a successful program administered by our insurance commissioner that saved buyers of health insurance at least $18 million over three years -- to sunset.
The gas cap case is another example. How come our governor hasn't exercised the power she has to restore the gas cap now that our gasoline prices have soared to about 60 cents a gallon more than the mainland?
The only way we might be able to break this pattern, in which elected officials are susceptible and inclined to succumb to the charms of lobbyists from wealthy corporate powers, is to pass a law such as Senate Bill 1068, which provides for the public financing of election campaigns. And that, I believe, is the only way we have to mount an effective campaign to bring prices down to reasonable levels.
I don't think a plan like Gov. Linda Lingle's to bring new advanced technological businesses to the state can succeed until the difference in the cost of living between here and the mainland reflects only the extra costs of transporting goods and services here and not the costs of corporate price gouging. When that happens, watch out, because every new and promising business will want to settle in the most gorgeous place in the world. We won't have to pay to lure them here.
There are other important reasons to pass this bill, like trying to restore faith in our elective system, which could begin to bring our citizens back to the voting booths on election day.
I urge you to call your state senators and representatives and demand that they vote to pass SB 1068 and other, similar campaign spending legislation.
Richard S. Miller is a professor of law emeritus, University of Hawaii. The views expressed here are his personal opinions.