Hawaii lawmakers held a record number of campaign fundraisers during the state legislative session this year, Campaign Spending Commission data shows, raising questions about the influence of money in politics.

During the 2018 session, which started Jan. 17 and wrapped up May 3, lawmakers held 77 fundraisers for their campaigns. That’s about five on average per week.

In all, 48 of the 76 members of the Legislature held fundraising events during the 15-week period, with tickets costing as much as $6,000 apiece.

Forty-eight of the 76 members of the Hawaii Legislature held fundraisers during the regular legislative session this year. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Corie Tanida, executive director of the open-government nonprofit Common Cause, said her group supports prohibiting fundraisers during session — a concept lawmakers have considered but rejected year after year.

“Legislators should be focusing on legislation during our short four-month session, and not their campaigns,” she said. “But it is not a silver bullet. Money in politics is an issue that pervades all aspects of politics and we need a multi-pronged approach to address it.”

Sen. Josh Green, who is running for lieutenant governor this fall, held seven fundraisers during this year’s legislative session, more than any of his colleagues. He declined to comment for this story.

Rep. Andria Tupola, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, held five fundraisers. Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, and Sen. Jill Tokuda, who is running for lieutenant governor, each held four fundraisers this session.

Statewide elections are particularly expensive. Candidates raise hundreds of thousands of dollars so they can reach voters outside their district through advertising on TV, radio, newspapers, social media and mailers.

But there’s concern that holding fundraisers while taking action on legislation fosters a pay-to-play culture in government — or at least the perception of it. Lobbyists, developers and special interest groups donate heavily to lawmakers who can move their bills forward.

That’s why a few lawmakers have tried to ban campaign contributions during the legislative session.

Senate Bill 813, introduced by Sens. Russell Ruderman, Les Ihara, Will Espero and Gil Riviere, was the latest effort. It died without so much as a committee hearing in 2017 or 2018.

In the meantime, fundraisers during the legislative session have soared 88 percent over the past six years, according to Campaign Spending Commission data.

Critics of a ban on fundraising during session say the state’s lack of a worthwhile public funding option is a problem because there’s no way to reduce the amount of money needed to mount a legitimate campaign.

Ian Lind, a longtime journalist and now a Civil Beat columnist has not only covered politics but also worked for the City Council and Legislature and been a lobbyist for Common Cause. He isn’t sold on the call to ban in-session fundraising.

He has said lawmakers are most engaged in their jobs during session and that those jobs are considered part-time in Hawaii. So it’s just easier to hold a fundraiser during session from a practical standpoint.

Lind also worries about the backroom meetings that might occur if lawmakers could only fundraise in between sessions. He said they currently solicit tickets to their fundraisers with mass mailers to constituents, lobbyists and public officials and then it’s just a matter of who pays to attend the event, giving people access to the candidates in the process.

He envisions one-on-one requests for money between candidates and potential donors supplanting the mass mailings if in-session fundraising is banned.

But Lind, like Tanida, does support reforming the current fundraising rules, including requiring candidates disclose how much they raised during the fundraiser sooner than the current law requires.

The public won’t know how much money lawmakers hauled in during their in-session fundraisers until their next reports are due with the Campaign Spending Commission on July 12, long after the session ended and just one month before the primary election.

“In this case knowledge is power, and how we’re able to hold power accountable,” Tanida said.

Reforms could also include requiring fundraisers to be held within one’s district or restricting contributions from lobbyists during session, she said.

Half the country already places some type of restriction on fundraising during session.

Alaska bans it entirely and bars lobbyists from donating to legislative candidates unless they live in their district. New Mexico also prohibits campaign contributions during the legislative session.

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