Should legislators be barred from holding fundraising events or soliciting money from lobbyists and interest groups while the Legislature is in session?

These mid-session fundraisers rely heavily on lobbyists and other special interests to write checks to the same legislators who will be deciding whether bills they are backing will pass or not. That’s certainly enough to cause the average person to legitimately wonder whether legislators’ votes are influenced by the campaign contributions they receive at this delicate time.

Civil Beat reports scheduled fundraisers under the subtle but critical heading, “Cash Call,” and has noted the potential conflict between the public interest and contributors’ narrow interests when campaign contributions are solicited and accepted while legislation is pending.

Blogger Larry Geller at disappearednews.com has been less circumspect, calling out the practice as essentially corrupt, creating at least the appearance of quid pro quo, pay-to-play corruption, and accusing legislators of checking their ethics at the door when holding session fundraisers.

Nearly one-third of Hawaii legislators have already held or announced plans for fundraisers costing more than $25 per person to attend, according to notices required to be filed with the Campaign Spending Commission, and there’s still more than a month to go before the session ends. Suggested contributions range from $50 up to $500 or $1,000 per person.

During the 2012 session, legislators raised nearly $800,000, according to data compiled by the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission. Then-Speaker Calvin Say led the list with $116,429 in session contributions, followed by five senators who each raised more than $35,000 between mid-January and early May (Michelle Kidani, Donna Mercado Kim, Donovan Dela Cruz, Clayton Hee, and Josh Green). In all, 22 legislators brought in more than $10,000 during the 2012 session.

Bills to prohibit mid-session fundraisers died quietly this year without even getting a hearing in either the House or Senate.

But Hawaii is clearly in the minority on this issue. At the end of 2011, 29 states had restrictions on campaign fundraising while their legislatures are in session, according to a review by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Of that number, 14 prohibit lobbyists from making campaign contributions during session, and another 15 prohibit all contributions from any source.

States with total bans on any session fundraising include Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

Fundraising bans are generally justified by the compelling state interest of avoiding corruption or the appearance of corruption in the legislative process. While money can’t yet be squeezed out of politics, it can arguably be held in check.

One might legitimately question whether these bans have actually improved the legislative process in those states or resulted in any shift in the balance of power from donors back to constituents. Evidence to support any direct positive effect is elusive, and anecdotal evidence suggests a session ban simply shifts many fundraising events to the period immediately before or after the session.

In Florida, for example, where legislative rules prohibit session fundraisers, dozens of events took place right before the opening of the annual session early this month.

“By some counts more than 17 receptions were held for more than 30 legislators plus three former House members who are seeking office again,” The Florida Current reported.

In Hawaii, where serving in the Legislature is technically considered a part-time job, there are practical reasons for scheduling events during the session. Public interest is higher when the Legislature is in session, with both legislators and their supporters easier to mobilize.

And although I can’t speak for those high-priced, elite-only events, the typical legislative fundraiser has a social as well as an economic function. Ask any reporter, or public interest lobbyist, and I expect they’ll agree that information flows as freely as beverages at most fundraisers, and is usually worth the price of admission. Many attend fundraisers not primarily to support a candidate, but for the opportunity to network, to pick up insider information, to share perspectives and interpretations of the rush of legislative politics. Yes, and to lobby. For those who want to do more than casually observe the political process from a safe distance, attending at least some fundraisers is really a must.

Fundraisers can also provide a few minutes of face time with legislators and other public officials, who are otherwise often unavailable to the 98 percent during session. A few words exchanged here and there with the legislator, or with others in attendance, can be extremely valuable whether you’re a constituent, a lobbyist, a concerned citizen, or “just” a voter.

Yes, there are positive things associated with fundraising events. And, yes, restricting fundraising only to certain parts of the year may, in the end, be more symbolic than substantive. But it would be a very important symbol, indeed, that would at the very least reduce the perception that our Legislature is for sale. In my view, worth the effort.

The fact that both bills calling for bans on session fundraisers went absolutely nowhere this year would, however, suggest that this Legislature does not have any appetite for a complete prohibition on all campaign fundraising during the annual session.

But what can be done? Here are a few suggestions for purposes of discussion.

• Prohibit soliciting or accepting contributions from lobbyists or their clients while the Legislature is in session. Lobbyists are really the key, since they are most likely to appear to be buying legislative outcomes through their contributions or fundraising on behalf of key legislators.

• Impose separate and stricter contribution limits during the legislative session, perhaps prohibiting any person from giving more than $100 to any candidate during this period, or prohibit fundraising events with a suggested ticket price of more than $25.

• Require timely disclosure of contributions while the Legislature is in session. For example, lobbyists could be required to disclose any contributions of $100 or more within 48 hours. With an online disclosure system, this wouldn’t appear unreasonable. Candidate committees might be required to disclose contributions monthly during the session.

Read Ian Lind’s blog at iLind.net.