The Hawaii Constitution calls for the public financing of campaigns for state office.

The Hawaii Legislature is even required to set limits on the spending of candidates.

Yet, since the 1978 Constitutional Convention — the last time Hawaii held a “Con Con” — few local candidates have taken advantage of public financing, and the number has dwindled over the decades.

In the meantime, local elections are increasingly flooded with hefty contributions from special interest groups. More than $3.5 million was contributed for elections in 2012.

The candidates that raise the most money — almost invariably, veteran incumbents — are usually the ones who win office.

Now, a bill moving through the Hawaii House of Representatives might change that equation.

House Bill 1481 would set up a comprehensive public funding program of candidates for state senator and state representative. Money would be appropriated to fund the program beginning in the 2016 elections.

“I think public financing of campaigns is one way to address the influence of special interest money, the overbearing influence,” said Rep. Della Au Belatti, a Democrat and chief sponsor of HB 1481. “It is one way to address the negative effects of Citizens United.”

Little Opposition

Citizens United is the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that concluded the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on independent political expenditures from corporations and unions.

Besides Belatti, 14 other Democrats have signed their name to HB 1481, including Speaker Joe Souki, Vice Speaker John Mizuno, Majority Leader Scott Saiki and Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke.

The measure passed unopposed in House Judiciary and House Finance, with only Republican Rep. Gene Ward voting “aye” with reservations. HB 1481 now awaits a third reading in the full House before it can cross over to the Senate for consideration.

In written testimony, the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission said it is “generally in support of the intent of public financing for candidates” but raised some objections to draft language.

For example, the commission raised the question of whether the legislature “can exclude certain public offices from the partial public financing program, and if so, under what circumstances.” HB 1481 would exempt races for governor and lieutenant governor.

County clerks for Maui, Kauai and Oahu raised concerns about whether the financing system would overburden their office resources.

Kory Payne, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Voter Owned Hawaii, said he believes the concerns have been worked out. Races for governor and LG are excluded because public funding would likely not help candidates be competitive, given the “good chunk of money” typically spent by winning candidates.

Neil Abercrombie spent $4.6 million to win in 2010. By contrast, in the 2012 elections, candidates who won House seats spent on average $34,800 while Senate victors spent $68,000.

What’s driving passage of HB 1481, said Payne, is public support for pubic financing — a desire to “break the cycle” of money and politics.

“The polling numbers are off the charts,” he said, pointing to a 2005 AARP Hawaii survey on campaign finance reform. Among the report’s highlights:

• Most residents agree that politicians become obligated to those who have given them money (81 percent), and think contributions “moderately or greatly influence policies” (86 percent).

• Seven in 10 residents think the state’’s political system is “equally” or “more” influenced by contributions today than it was 20 years ago, and most (82 percent) think changes are needed when it comes to the way election campaigns are financed in the state.

• Two-thirds of residents “strongly” or “somewhat” support a legislative proposal to change the way state election campaigns are financed; 74 percent support participating candidates receiving an equal amount of public funds to finance campaigns.

Payne, the leading advocate for HB 1481’s passage, thinks the bill has a real chance to pass the House.

“In the past, we have noticed that people don’t want to come out against this kind of program because it’s so popular,” he said. “We have not taken a head count, but we expect it will pass.”

Belatti was more cautious.

“We will have to wait and see,” she said. “Public financing challenges ourselves as incumbents, though it also challenges us in a good way. But it may be threatening to some folks because it opens up our very own legislative seats.”

If it passes the House, HB 1481 will likely be referred to the Ways and Means and Judiciary and Labor committees in the Senate.

How It Would Work

As HB 1481 is currently drafted, candidates who wish to qualify for public financing would have to collect signatures from registered voters in their district.

House candidates would need 250 signatures and Senate candidates 350 signatures, along with a $5 contribution from each.

The qualifying candidates would then receive matching funds for their 2016 election based on a formula that averages expenditures in the most recent election after removing the top three and bottom three spenders.

The public finance program is voluntary, and it’s not clear whether lawmakers who have received and spent large sums of contributions would opt out of that system.

Spending on House races last year totalled $2.9 million while Senate expenditures totaled $2.5 million.

Candidates who continue to run for office do not have to spend all of the money they raise. As a result, a number of veteran senators and reps have six-figure war chests.

Still, a public funding pilot project for Hawaii County Council candidates last year suggests the idea has appeal. Five out of nine councilors won their races using the program, a group that included incumbents and challengers.

House Bill 360 and Senate Bill 381 change funding formulas for the county project and limit the number of candidates. The bills’ chief sponsors include newly elected Big Island lawmakers Rep. Nicole Lowen and Sen. Russell Ruderman.

Following the Money

Hawaii elections are flush with special interest money. Of the $8.7 million contributed to state candidates in the 2012 elections, about 40 percent came from such groups.

Labor represented the single-largest economic interest (9 percent), followed by finance, real estate and insurance; and lawyers and lobbyists. Significant amounts of money also came from the construction, transportation, energy and health sectors.

According to Follow the Money, the nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on the influence of campaign money on state-level elections and public policy, a scant .08 percent (or $6,960) of 2012 donations came from public financing.

The remainder of 2012 contributions — well over 50 percent — came from individuals, with candidates themselves donating about $500,000.

But it is the special interest money that concerns good-government groups the most.

“The best solution to the issue of money in politics and its tendency to undermine democratic institutions, is to encourage candidates to run on public funding,” testified Barbara Polk, legislative chairwoman of Americans for Democratic Action/Hawaii. “Hawaii’s current partial public funding statute has not been updated in many years, with the result that the amounts candidates could receive are far insufficient to enable them to run a competitive campaign.”

Payne points out that more states are adopting public financing. They include full funding in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut.

“Special interests have cornered the market and created a monopoly on elections, and the public isn’t invited to the party,” he said. “Public financing could lead to better public policies.”

“Is it the perfect solution? I’m not sure,” Belatti said of HB 1481. “But it was something that was desired by the 1978 Constitutional Convention. … It’s a starting point.”

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