Imagine this in Hawaii’s not-too-distant future:

• Candidates for the Legislature could reject special interest money and fully disclose financial interests at the beginning of session.

• Elections officials would protect absentee ballots and allow residents to register to vote on election day.

• Candidates would have to actually live in the district they want to represent, not just maintain a home there.

• The public could help weed out conflicts of interest among members of key state boards based on financial disclosure reports.

It’s not a dream. Hawaii lawmakers moved on measures Tuesday that would make all of that a reality.

Call it a good day for good government.

Breaking The Cycle

One of the biggest victories was the passage of House Bill 1481, which passed the House and now heads to the Senate.

HB 1481 would offer public financing of legislative races beginning in 2016. Supporters say the measure could help break the cycle of money and politics.

The vote was not unanimous; Democrats Marcus Oshiro and Sharon Har and Republican Richard Fale voted no, while four other Democrats — Faye Hanohano, Angus McKelvey, Jimmy Tokioka and Jo Jordan — voted “aye” with reservations.

Har called the bill “well intentioned” but said it could lead to taxpayers contributing to parties and candidates they oppose. Oshiro worried about the cost to taxpayers to pay for the program.

But Democrat Kaniela Ing said HB 1481 was an effort to stem the tide of special interest money in the wake of the 2010 federal Citizens United ruling. Elections should be about “big ideas, not big money,” he argued.

Another Democrat, Karl Rhoads, reminded his colleagues that the funding program would be voluntary. Even if three candidates for all House and Senate seats qualified for funding, it would amount to just a fraction of the state’s nearly $12 billion budget.

That would also mean that taxpayers, not special interests, would be the biggest donors to legislative elections. Democrat Chris Lee pointed out that “more than half” of campaign contributions are currently coming from outside lawmakers’ districts.

Meanwhile, a public funding pilot project for Hawaii County Council elections would change under a bill that cleared the Senate.

Senate Bill 381, which passed unanimously, would limit the number of candidates who can apply for the public funding to 25 each election cycle. It would also change the funding formula for the project to the average amount of money spent by winning candidates in the previous two election cycles for all county district races.

Another campaign spending-related bill would increase the transparency of independent expenditures. Senate Bill 31 passed unanimously.

House Bill 1027 also passed. It aims to protect the integrity of absentee voting by making sure no one — i.e., employers, unions, candidates — interferes with voters as they complete their ballots.

Sens. Jill Tokuda and Les Ihara.

Some have dubbed the measure “the Romy Cachola bill” after the former Honolulu City Councilman and current Kalihi state representative who has been accused by some of pressuring constituents to complete absentee ballots in his favor. For his part, Cachola vigorously denies the accusations.

The vote on HB 1027 was unanimous.

A similar bill passed on the Senate side Tuesday. Senate Bill 827 would make it a misdemeanor for a candidate to physically handle or possess the voter registration form or ballot of another person.

House Bill 1132 passed the House unanimously. It moves the deadline for legislators’ financial disclosures from May 31 to January, allowing citizens (including the media) to look for conflicts of interest while bills are being considered, not after they are passed.

And House Bill 321 also had smooth sailing through the House. It provides a process for voter registration on election day at polling places.

Too Much Disclosure?

The Senate slammed through a dozen bills related to improving elections and increasing government transparency. But it also slipped one through over the objections of Les Kondo, the Ethics Commission’s executive director.

Kondo has said Senate Bill 893 is an attempt to shield one member of the now-defunct Mortgage Foreclosure Task Force.

But Sen. Roz Baker said too much disclosure can deter people from serving on state task forces, where they provide valuable input into the lawmaking process. She added that the Senate Majority’s attorney has issued an opinion that totally refutes Kondo’s.

SB 893 passed with Sens. Les Ihara Jr. and Sam Slom voting no, and Sen. Laura Thielen voting yes with reservations. Slom said good government depends on strong ethics laws and transparency.

The Senate also shelved a bill aimed at making it quicker and less costly for a political party to challenge a candidate’s affiliation.

The issue arose last year when Hawaii Democrats rejected Thielen’s request to run in the party’s Aug. 11 primary for state Senate. She was ultimately allowed to run as a Democrat and won a seat in November.

Those bills aside, the Senate passed two other bills that would strengthen ethics laws by requiring significantly more financial disclosure from state boards, commissions and lawmakers who receive money from lobbyists.

Senate Bill 66 would require members of the Public Utilities Commission, University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Board of Land and Natural Resources and several other boards to file financial disclosure statements annually that are publicly available.

Sens. David Ige and Ron Kouchi.

“The primary purpose of the disclosure law is to provide transparency into certain types of financial interests of legislators, state officials, state employees and state board members to help identify potential conflicts of interest,” Kondo said in his testimony.

Senate Bill 848, which passed unanimously, would require state employees and legislators to disclose every source of annual income that totals more than their annual salary if that source is a lobbyist.

The Senate also advanced a few bills that would reform Hawaii’s election system, particularly in terms of publicly funded campaigns and residency requirements for candidates. Senate Bill 225, introduced by Ihara, tries to define “residence” in a way that makes it impossible for candidates to maintain a home in one district so they can run for office there despite actually living elsewhere.

The question of residency was most recently raised in a lawsuit targeting Rep. Calvin Say, the former House speaker. Kaimuki-Palolo-area voters wanted him to prove in court that he is actually a resident of District 20, but the judge said it’s a matter for the elections office to resolve.

Another Senate bill targeting the residency of candidates for the Legislature was killed. Senate Bill 478 proposed a constitutional amendment to require candidates for state House or Senate to be a state resident for at least five years and a resident of the district they want to represent for at least 12 consecutive months prior to the next general election. But a similar House bill is alive.

As is always warned, anything can happen in the Legislature.

A committee chair could refuse to hear a bill, for example, or the conference committee process could radically change the language and intent of bills.

But March 5, 2013, was — on balance — a good day at the Hawaii Legislature for good government.

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