Get corporate interests out of Hawaii’s elections
Last year Exxon Mobil's net income set a U.S. record at an astounding $40.6 billion. That's 40 followed by nine zeros.
How did this company earn that much money? It was a combination of many things. Of course, the company managed itself in a fiscally prudent way. Its employees rolled up their sleeves and did some old-fashioned hard work. You can't say anything bad about those kinds of things.
Some of its business practices, however, deserve scrutiny. For starters, the company systematically paid climate change skeptics at different universities to concoct reports that helped fuel confusion about the arguable details of climate change.
Exxon also invested huge amounts of money in elections and lobbying activities. Since 1999, the company has spent well over $1 billion on political activity, and it's still lobbying for huge tax cuts, attempting to tap the strategic petroleum reserve in Alaska and fighting better CAFE standards that would help the auto industry develop more fuel-efficient motors. And, most disturbing, the company fought to make sure it didn't have to spend a penny in Prince William Sound, where its tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean in 1989.
Exxon Mobil did these things while spending huge amounts of money to create a feel-good image with the public. By investing in commercials that give the impression that the company is aggressively looking to implement renewable energy solutions, Exxon officials have been able to give people a false sense of what the company is all about.
Doing business this way ends up costing taxpayers huge amounts of money. It slows progress, bottle-necks important information through the funding of junk science, and tramples on small businesses and consumers. And it does all of this while raiding the public coffers through large tax breaks and subsidies.
I'd like to say that this pattern stops with Exxon Mobil, but it doesn't. Pharmaceutical, chemical and other industry giants are using the same sorts of tactics. These larger corporations do this regardless of the effects on the long-term fiscal health of the economy or any moral imperative. In fact, they're legally bound by shareholder law to do so.
Just like legislators in Washington, D.C., candidates in Hawaii are stuck in the same type of system in which they're forced to raise more and more money from private interests. It doesn't take a genius to understand that legislators are going to give more time and access to the donors who give the largest campaign contributions. In Hawaii, from 2002-2005, the oil industry alone spent $696,402 in donations and lobbying expenditures.
Of course, there is no easy fix to all of this. There is, however, one promising solution that could shift us significantly in the right direction. A comprehensive public funding option for elections would give candidates the choice to
either run their campaigns with private money or try to qualify for public money. Several states around the country are rolling out this kind of program and it is having profound effects.
Qualifying for public funding is difficult. It requires that candidates have sound ideas and broad support from the districts in which they are running. In other states, about 30 percent of those who attempt to qualify for public funds are successful, but still there is an overall increase in the number of competitive candidates.
Candidates who are elected with public funds don't have to worry about spending half of their time courting wealthy donors to fund their campaigns. Instead, they spend that time solving community problems. Publicly funded candidates are free to meet with anyone in order to get the information they need to solve problems, and when it comes time to make decisions, they don't need to worry about who funded their campaign.
House Bill 661 would allow Hawaii to test this program to see how it works. After citizens, small business leaders, laborers, the Hawaii County Council and Mayor Harry Kim called on the Legislature to pass HB 661, the bill was sent to Gov. Linda Lingle's desk, where it awaits her signature.
A veto of this bill would deny us the chance to see how a public funding option would work in Hawaii. The program is already paid for by voluntary contributions from income tax forms and would cost a maximum of $300,000 every two years. Currently, there is more than $5.5 million in the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, and this money is already dedicated to this type of program.
This bill would create more choices for candidates, as well as for voters, and at the same time free up candidates to spend more time with constituents and less time raising money from the largest donors.
Kory Payne is community organizer for Voter Owned Hawaii, a group advocating publicly funded campaigns in Hawaii.