Money in politics: Lawmakers fundraise during legislative session

HILO — Elections are more than a year away — and for some senators three years away — but that hasn’t kept state lawmakers from holding fundraisers during the legislative session and collecting money from the very people who are trying to influence their votes.

The nine Hawaii Island state lawmakers running for state office, all Democrats, collected a total of $91,524 for the first six months of this year, according to reports filed with the state Campaign Spending Commission by Wednesday’s deadline.

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But Big Island lawmakers are by no means the biggest moneymakers. House and Senate leaders brought in much more. For example, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz brought in a whopping $145,721. House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke collected $98,760. Senate President Ron Kouchi collected $81,155. House Speaker Scott Saiki collected $49,850.

State Sen. Kai Kahele, of Hilo, who is running for Congress, reported raising no state money, but collected $398,980 in his federal campaign during the same period. His contributions are reported to the Federal Election Commission.

The legislative session ran from Jan. 16 to May 2.

Tops on the state list locally was Sen. Lorraine Inouye, whose 18 $500-plus contributions accounted for almost half of the $32,584 she collected during the period. Inouye, who comes up for re-election in 2022, held one fundraiser during that period, a minimum $150-a-person affair Feb. 12 at the Mandalay Restaurant, a half a mile from the Capitol.

Inouye chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. Chairs of committees determine how bills are amended or even if they get heard in their committee at all. Her top donors include ironworkers and electrical engineers as well as lobbyists, rental car and auto dealerships.

The senator downplayed any possibility that contributions to her campaign account influence how she conducts legislative business.

“In transportation, there’s not much of a controversy that has to do with personal incentives for lobbyists or companies,” Inouye said Friday. “In my history, as well, because somebody contributes, I don’t neglect any other laws. I’ve been really good about it and I think people out there who have dealt with me always respect that. From the beginning, it depends on the issue.”

Sen. Dru Kanuha, a Kona freshman who also comes up for re-election in 2022, includes family friends and fellow lawmakers among the 15 top contributors that helped him bring in $18,415 during the first six months of the year. Kanuha held two Honolulu fundraisers during the legislative session.

“If I ever felt pressured to vote a certain way, I wouldn’t collect any money from anybody,” Kanuha said. “I think it’s good to spread it out throughout the term instead of doing fundraisers at the very end.”

Sen. Russell Ruderman, of Puna, thinks even the appearance of fundraising during the legislative session should be avoided. But he did hold one himself, an April 18 affair at Cafe Julia, just a third of a mile from the Capitol. Ruderman, chairman of the Human Services Committee, raised just $1,100 during the period, with $1,000 of that coming from United Health Group Inc.

“I have twice proposed a bill for no funding a week before to a week after session,” Ruderman said. “I think it’s a very bad practice. I think it’s distasteful.”

Rep. Richard Onishi of Hilo was the top fundraiser among the island’s House members, collecting $8,300, with $4,500 coming from eight donations of $500 or more. House members run every two years, compared to four years for the Senate.

Onishi, chairman of the House Tourism and International Affairs Committee, held one Honolulu fundraiser the week before the legislative session started. He raised about $2,000 from tourism-related donations.

Among his contributions was a $500 donation from ARDA ROC-PAC, the Resort Owner’s Coalition advocating for timeshares. It noted a victory on its website when SB 714, raising transient accommodations taxes on timeshares so they would apply to the entire amount of gross daily maintenance fees paid by the owner to the full amount, passed the full Senate but was not heard in Onishi’s committee this year.

Onishi could not be reached for comment by press-time Friday.

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Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, of Puna, was the second-highest fundraiser among Big Island House members. She had just one contribution of $500 or more, a $1,000 donation from Ironworkers Union Local 625. San Buenaventura, chairwoman of the House Committee on Human Services and Homelessness, held fundraisers Jan. 24 in Keaau and June 24 in Honolulu.

“Generally, I try to raise the money within my district,” San Buenaventura said. “I do want to make it about more public participation. If they give me a little money, I’m more likely to get their vote.”

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