Legislative bills advance
campaign finance reform

Sen. Gary Hooser says he would gladly forsake the political campaign contribution system despite being an incumbent with name recognition and supporters who helped him raise more than $100,000 for his last election.

"I think the existing system is out of control," said Hooser (D, Kauai-Niihau). "I think it represents a tremendous burden and roadblock for new candidates to come into the system.

"I spend a good part of my day-to-day life trying to find other people to run for office, and people say, 'You're crazy. How am I going to raise X number of dollars?' ... If you're a businessman or you're connected to money, you're able to participate in the process, but otherwise you're not."

Hooser and other supporters of public campaign funding could soon get their wish.

Both the House and Senate have advanced proposals that would establish a special fund for political candidates who agree to abide by certain spending limits.

If passed, the bills would not replace the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which provides partial campaign financing. The fund is backed by taxpayers who voluntarily authorize a portion of their taxes.

Ira Rohter, president of the advocate group Clean Elections Hawaii, said the advancement of bills in both chambers has him optimistic of getting something passed this year.

Similar bills advanced last year but died before making it to conference committee, where House members and senators try to work out a compromise.

"There's a lot of momentum here, and we're getting a lot of legislators to support it," Rohter said.

Aside from attracting more people to run for office, supporters of public funding say it also will eliminate the appearance of contributors buying influence.

"This is really not about cleaning up corruption. The laws are there. They just have to be better enforced," Rohter told lawmakers this week. "This is a story about conflicts of interest.

"We're talking about huge amounts of money that come flowing in and do affect behavior."

Opponents worry that a public system would put the burden of campaign financing on the average taxpayer.

House Minority Floor Leader Colleen Meyer supported the proposal but voted "with reservations." She argued that the House version of the bill (House Bill 1713, House Draft 1) would require roughly $26 million from the state's general fund be set aside to help finance the special fund that would be used to support candidates.

"I don't think that's the kind of use of general funds that we should be doing at this time," said Meyer (R, Laie-Kahaluu). "There are too many other important needs."

The Senate version of the bill (Senate Bill 1689, Senate Draft 2) is more a work in progress, with the amount of money that would be set aside yet to be determined.

Republican Sen. Gordon Trimble also supported the measure with reservations, saying he thinks the bill might help attract not only candidates, but voters, too.

"I think there is a sense that running against an incumbent is something that requires somebody that's totally insane, and so you just don't see it happening and the voter doesn't have choices along the way," said Trimble (R, Downtown-Waikiki). "They therefore lose interest in the process, and we see voter turnout being low."

As a freshman senator who challenged and defeated an incumbent last year, Sen. Clarence Nishihara said money was not as much of an issue as having the right message.

Nishihara (D, Waipahu) defeated longtime incumbent Cal Kawamoto, whose battles with the Campaign Spending Commission over impropriety in his campaign were well publicized.

"It still amounts to being able to sell oneself's position as you go about what you do," Nishihara said.


Qualifying candidates would
seek $3 donations

How public funding for political campaigns would work, under the proposal being advanced in the state House:

To qualify to receive public funds, a candidate for office would have to show that he or she has support by collecting 200 contributions of $3 each from residents within the district, said Ira Rohter, president of the advocacy group Clean Elections Hawaii, which has crafted the bill being considered by lawmakers.

That money would go into a special fund to be used to finance public candidates. A commission would be established to determine whether there is enough money in the special fund to finance the expected number of candidates in an election year. The bill aims to create a special fund that is self-sustaining, funded through a combination of the seed money contributions and other state funds, Rohter said.

All amounts that are paid to candidates are based on estimates of the amounts spent by winning candidates in previous elections.

For example, a candidate for the state House would receive $9,000 from the special fund for the primary and another $15,000 for the general election.

The amounts differ depending on which office is being sought. Money not spent would be returned to the general fund.

If a publicly funded candidate is facing an opponent receiving private money, the bill allows for "equalizing" payments to be made from the special fund to help keep the race competitive, Rohter said.

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