Seven candidates for Hawaii County Council on the Big Island are taking advantage of public financing through a three-election-year pilot program in its second year.

The candidates — including two incumbents — have together received more than $145,000 for their primary campaigns. A total of a dozen candidates signed up to participate in the so-called Comprehensive Public Funding program.

The program was seen as way to help eliminate the influence of outside money in elections. The money comes through the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which is filled by taxpayers who check off on their state income tax filings to have $3 go to the fund.

“The program is basically designed, in my opinion, to promote clean elections so that people running in the same district have an equal playing field as far as access to funds,” said Maile David, a candidate running for District 6, who has received more than $41,000 in public funds for the upcoming Aug. 11 primary. “I don’t think I could have raised that amount of money on my own. … It’s hard enough running a campaign, and when you have to ask your supporters for money when times are really tough, I’m just happy that I do have this funding.”

Once a candidate opts in to the program, he or she needs to raise 200 individual $5 contributions from registered voters in their district. When that’s achieved and verified by the state Campaign Spending Commission, the candidate receives a so-called base amount.

The remaining five candidates who applied have until June 5 to raise their 200 contributions.

The base amount of funding varies for each of the council’s nine districts. It’s calculated by averaging how much the winner in each district spent in the previous two county council elections, less 10 percent. For example, this election, the base amount for District 1 is $1,226; for District 6 it’s $41,573. A $300,000 cap is in place for each election.

A participating candidate cannot accept additional contributions after receiving the base public funding. They are allowed to raise up to $3,000 in “seed money” before opting into the program.

Here are the seven candidates who have received public funds so far:

Candidate District Primary Base
J Yoshimoto 2 $14,559
Greggor Ilagan 4 $16,320
James Weatherford 4 $16,320
Maile David 6 $41,573
Brenda Ford 6 $41,573
Karen Eoff 8 $3,684.56
Margaret Wille 9 $11,427.46

David said she plans to spend the funds on efforts to get out into her community.

“I anticipate a lot of it will get spent through advertising — radio and newspaper — doing community talk-stories and things like that,” she said. “My district is a big district, running from South Kona to the Volcano area, so that $41,000 is going to be spent basically on going out in to the district and meeting people.”

In the 2010 election, a total of 16 Hawaii County Council candidates applied to participate in the pilot. Eight candidates received about $147,700 total in base funds for that year’s primary.

Previously, the pilot program had a second piece to it. In addition to the base amount, a participating candidate could previously receive what’s known as “equalizing funds” if he or she is outspent by an opponent who does not participate in the public funds program. A candidate could get a maximum up to their original base amount.

That part of the program has been struck down by a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision on a similar Arizona law, according to Tony Baldomero, associate director of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.

The high court ruled that “Arizona’s matching funds scheme substantially burdens protected political speech without serving a compelling state interest and therefore violates the First Amendment.”

The Big Island pilot program is separate from the statewide partial public funding program, which first launched in 1980. That program, which also is funded through the tax return check-off, is meant to encourage so-called grassroots campaigning by using public money to match dollar for dollar contributions by Hawaii residents of $100 or less.

So far this election, just one candidate has received money through that program. Don Guzman, who’s running for the Maui County Council residency seat of Kahului, has received $6,335 for the primary election.

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