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Friday, March 31, 2000

Gore’s proposals on
campaign finance

Bullet The issue: Vice President Gore has proposed reform of the campaign finance laws.
Bullet Our view: His plan to fund congressional campaigns is unlikely to work.

AS vice president in the Clinton administration, Al Gore has been scarred by the 1996 campaign fund-raising scandals. The issue was revived recently by the conviction of a Gore supporter on campaign finance violations, including some related to the notorious Buddhist temple incident at which Gore made an appearance.

Taking his cue from Sen. John McCain, who has crusaded for campaign finance reform and made a strong though unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Gore has now gone on the offensive on the issue. Speaking at Marquette University in Milwaukee with Sen. Russ Feingold, McCain's Democratic collaborator on reform, Gore offered new proposals to deal with the issue.

These were a $7.1-billion, privately funded "Democracy Endowment" to provide funding for congressional campaigns, new disclosure rules for lobbyists and outside groups that pay for political messages and mandatory free rebuttal air time for candidates criticized in such messages. Contributions to the "Democracy Endowment" would be fully tax deductible -- which would mean an indirect public subsidy.

The vice president acknowledged that he was an "imperfect messenger" for campaign finance reform proposals -- a reference to his own involvement in questionable if not clearly illegal practices. But he insisted that something had to be done because "this cancer on our democracy is growing."

Yes, something has to be done. But indiscriminate financing of elections, whether by public or private sources, is not the answer. We already have public funding in presidential elections, and at the state level in Hawaii, and it's done nothing to stop the inflow of money into campaigns. Candidates who can raise more than the prescribed limit to qualify for public funding simply waive their right to it -- as Ben Cayetano did in 1998.

As for private financing, there is a real question whether anyone would contribute to such a fund rather than give to the candidates of his choice. In the case of public financing, the concept of using taxpayer money to finance the campaigns of people the taxpayer does not support is flawed.

Gore may have a point in proposing stricter disclosure rules for lobbyists and allegedly independent groups that pay for political messages. But mandatory free rebuttal time would probably be an infringement of the First Amendment and would discourage the airing of criticism.

McCain and Feingold have pulled back from their proposals to regulate independent political messages and now focus mainly on a ban on "soft money" contributions to the political parties. This is a glaring loophole in current law that has been widely abused and should be closed.

Both Gore and his probable Republican opponent, George W. Bush, now support a ban on unregulated soft-money contributions.

Of course, Gore and Bush -- and for that matter McCain -- have not been bashful about accepting soft money for their campaigns. Their sudden conversion on the issue should be taken skeptically -- particularly in view of the fact that any change in the law would not apply to the current campaign.

OHA eligibility

Bullet The issue: Several non-Hawaiians reportedly plan to run for Office of Hawaiian Affairs trusteeships.
Bullet Our view: A state Supreme Court declaratory opinion is needed to clarify whether restricting candidates to those of Hawaiian ancestry is unconstitutional.

ANOTHER legal battle may be looming unless the state attorney general seeks a declaration from the state Supreme Court about whether non-Hawaiians may run for Office of Hawaiian Affairs trusteeships. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rice vs. Cayetano that voting for trustees must be open to all races, it also suggested that any racial barriers that may exist elsewhere in the democratic process should be removed. A declaratory opinion from the state's high court is needed to prevent confusion over the next OHA elections.

The federal court ruled that restricting voting for OHA trustees to Hawaiians violated the Fifteenth Amendment right of citizens to vote in elections regardless of race. Determining that OHA is a state agency, the court found that OHA elections are subject to constitutional requirements.

While limiting its decision to voting rights -- the Fifteenth Amendment itself is limited to those specific rights -- Justice Anthony Kennedy added in the court's majority opinion: "Race cannot qualify some and disqualify others from full participation in our democracy."

Running for public office logically qualifies as "participation in our democracy," and several non-Hawaiians plan to run for trusteeships, according to John W. Goemans, the attorney for Harold "Freddie" Rice. "These are people who want to run and it will require a court determination, one way or the other," said Goemans, who now includes the prospective trustee candidates among his clients.

State Deputy Attorney General Girard Lau argues that the law requiring trustee candidates to be Hawaiians "is still in force and unchanged by the Rice decision. The ruling said everybody is allowed to vote, that's all. It didn't say anything about the trustees."

Lau is right, of course, but the handwriting is on the wall even though it has yet to appear in a Supreme Court decision. Governor Cayetano prudently asked the attorney general last week to determine in advance of the Nov. 7 elections whether a declaratory opinion from the state Supreme Court is needed.

The answer is yes. The attorney general should obtain a state Supreme Court declaration on the issue.

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