Publicly Funded Elections Bill That Would Stem Money’s Influence on Hawaii Politics Moves Forward

This morning the Senate Ways and Means Committee passed Hawaii House Bill 1481 HD2 SD1, stated a news release sent out today from the non-partisan organization Voter Owned Hawaii, which supports the bill. HB 1481 would modernize an outdated and unpopular partial program from 1978 and create a full public funding option for elections.

“We’re delighted with this bill’s passage, and excited about the prospect of leveling the playing field for House candidates,” said Janet Mason, Vice President of League of Women Voters, Hawaii, in the news release.

As the bill states, the public funding option grants candidates for state house representatives a competitive amount of campaign money (based on last election’s average expenditures by winning candidates: $34,000) on the condition that the candidate first collects 250 donations of at least $5 from constituents in their district. Single donations may not exceed $250, and total seed money cannot exceed $3000. If the candidate does receive public funds, he or she is barred from receiving any outside donations.

“Candidates are spending 30-70 percent of their time raising money from private sources,” Kory Payne, executive director of Voter Owned Hawaii, told me. “Instead of raising money, they can spend time with their constituents and solving problems. Americans’ belief in our system and trust in legislators is the lowest in recorded history. At the root of this cynicism and distrust is the problem of money in politics. Sure, individual citizens can donate, but our voices are getting drowned out by the largest campaign donors”

Payne shared a March 2005 AARP study to verify his claims. The survey shows that 86 percent of Hawaii residents believe that campaign contributions moderately or greatly influence policies supported by elected officials while 82 percent think that changes are needed in how campaigns are financed in the state. Given the increasing foothold of seed and development companies in our Aloha state and the presidential election we held last year one might venture that these numbers are higher today.

“Special interests donate to politicians to get a return on their investment, and right now they’ve cornered the market on elections and the public is not invited to the party,” Payne said in a Mar. 26 news statement. “Publicly funded elections will save taxpayer money by allowing politicians to make decisions based upon what’s best for the people instead of campaign donors.”

Voter Owned Hawaii argues that the benefits will be worth the monetary costs of public funding, which the proposed measure places at a minimum of $3.5 million by Sept. 1, 2015 (the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund currently has a balance of about $3.2 million). This amount would have to be renewed by each election cycle.

Additionally, in testimony, the Hawaii State Campaign Finance Committee cited costs in the form of new positions required to take on the duties required by the bill. They concluded, “Thus it is certain that unless the Legislature provides funding for this program and other Commission expenses, this proposed comprehensive public funding program will not be implemented in 2016.”

To put this into perspective, Payne wrote in a Mar. 13 Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial that “To fully fund every House and Senate race, both winners and losers, would have cost each taxpayer a little over $2.50 per year. That’s a small price to pay for the public to take back control of our laws.”

For more information on the bill, visit Capitol.hawaii.gov and Voterownedhawaii.org