Public funding would
reduce campaign corruption


The Legislature is considering bills that would give candidates the option of public funding.

AFTER decades of elections tarnished by questionable campaign contributions, Hawaii might be ready for a system that affords candidates an opportunity to run free of private donations and special-interest influence, relying only on limited public financing. Success of what proponents call "clean elections" is drawing interest and support in Hawaii. The Legislature should consider adopting such a system.

The system goes beyond matching public funds, allowing candidates to rely entirely on public money as long as they limit expenditures. It would not require all candidates to participate. Some may wish to use private donations or their own money so they can spend as much as they like.

Maine and Arizona put the public financing alternative into effect in the 2000 elections. Both states report widespread approval by both candidates and voters. Arizona Democrat Janet Napolitano used public funding in winning the governorship in 2002 against a privately funded opponent, and Maine Gov. John Baldacci may opt as a "clean candidate" next year.

The share of Maine candidates participating in the system increased from one-third in the first year to more than three-fourths in last year's election. It has become so popular that opponents predict it will become unaffordable. Also, state Rep. Gerald Davis complained to the Portland (Me.) Press Herald, "Why should any person subsidize with his tax dollars ideas that he finds repugnant?"

The answer is that such ideas, repugnant or not, are those of the candidate, unfiltered by contribution-bearing lobbyists. However, concern about the system's affordability is legitimate. It is expected to cost $10 million next year in Maine. A measure considered in the Hawaii Legislature would require $26 million in its first year, according to House Republican Leader Colleen Meyer.

The tax revenue to finance the system should not be larger than that spent in Maine, which has a population nearly identical to Hawaii's although triple the number of House seats and 10 more Senate seats. Hawaii's growing economy should not result in political greed at public expense, and proponents of the system should exercise moderation in order to gain approval.

Patterned after the Maine and Arizona laws, the Hawaii bill would require a candidate to collect $3 donations from 200 voters for a House seat, 300 for a Senate seat, 2,500 for lieutenant governor and 5,000 for governor to be eligible for public financing. The collections would go into the special public campaign fund. According to one version, public financing would be keyed to previous campaign expenditures.

If support for the bill is lacking, legislators should consider a pilot project similar to one under way in New Jersey. Public funding will be an option next year in two New Jersey legislative districts deemed moderately competitive -- one leaning Democratic and the other prone to Republicans -- chosen by party leadership.

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