Saturday | December 16, 2017
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State elections may get permanent public option

Supporters of a bill aimed at creating a public funding option for political campaigns are hoping Hawaii County’s recent success with a pilot program will translate into statewide acceptance.

On Thursday, the state Senate’s Ways and Means committee approved House Bill 1481, which aims to improve Hawaii’s partial funding program for state Legislature elections. The original program was implemented in 1978, but has “become ineffective over time,” according to the nonprofit organization Voter Owned Hawaii.

“We’ve been working on this issue for a long time,” explained Kory Payne, executive director of Voter Owned Hawaii. “Our goal is to upgrade and modernize … elections. To do that, we’ve had to take incremental steps, and luckily for us, the Big Island decided to step up in 2008 when we passed Act 244. Now, we’re counting on the Big Island’s House delegation to support HB 1481.”

Through Act 244, the Legislature created a pilot program on the Big Island. The program takes a maximum of $300,000 from the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which is funded by taxpayers through a voluntary check-off on state income tax forms, and distributes it on a first-come, first-served basis to Hawaii County Council candidates. The intent is to level the playing field for candidates who aren’t able to raise large amounts of campaign cash.

“We end up paying for elections by not paying for them,” explained Payne. “We pay for them in the form of bad policies and infrastructure mismanagement.”

Hawaii County Council candidates who choose to request public funding must be certified and collect $5 checks and verified signatures from 200 registered voters within their districts, and they must agree not to take campaign contributions from other sources. The amount of money available for campaigns is based on candidate spending for each district in previous elections.

This November, the county celebrated a milestone with the election of a majority of publicly funded council members — Karen Eoff, Brenda Ford, Greggor Ilagan, Margaret Wille and J Yoshimoto.

The pilot program, which ends after the 2014 election cycle, has had its share of problems, including questions about whether it would have enough funding to continue, and funding disparities between districts.

“There were a couple problems with the Big Island that we didn’t foresee,” Payne said, “but the model we’re looking at for the state, we’re confident it’ll work.”

The bill before legislators attempts to free up more money for state funding and institutes a formula for figuring how much candidates may receive, rather than relying on fixed amounts, which would become obsolete over time.

In testimony provided to the Legislature earlier this month, Hawaii League of Women Voters President Beppie Shapiro agreed that questions about how the law will be funded are valid, but argued that “there are also costs to continuing the present system of private funding.”

“While it is impossible to calculate these costs,” she said, “they surely include the large number of hours spent on fundraising by legislators and challengers; the costs incurred by our invaluable Campaign Spending Commission tracking and analyzing fundraising and expenditure reports and administering the largely ineffective current partial campaign funding program; and, potentially, legislation which serves a certain sector of the economy but may have the result of comparatively raising costs on other sectors of the general public.”

Ultimately, she said, the measure would ensure that candidates will be able to focus on the needs of their districts rather than the pursuit of money for increasingly expensive campaigns.

“The recent pilot of full voluntary public funding in Hawaii County … (has allowed) council members to be elected without spending time and energy chasing dollars. The public can trust that these successful candidates will devote themselves to the public good,” she said.

The measure passed through the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee with the sole “no” vote coming from state Sen. Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai, Waikiki, Diamond Head.

The Legislature entertained other campaign finance measures, including Senate Bill 381, introduced by state Sen. Russell Ruderman. That bill would have addressed the financing disparities between districts in the Hawaii County pilot program. But, it was deferred by the House committee on Finance on March 27.

In an interview Friday, Ruderman said he hadn’t given up on his bill, which he thinks will strengthen the Hawaii Island program. Additionally, he said, he was excited to see House Bill 1481 continue campaign finance reform at the state level.