Civil Beat reported Tuesday that the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii gave $600,000 to a new political action committee set up to defeat a statewide ballot measure.

That means more than $1 million has been raised so far to persuade voters to oppose a constitutional amendment intended to raise certain property taxes to help public schools.

Supporters of the ConAm are raising money, too. Same goes for groups focused on the state’s other ballot measure, which asks whether we should hold a constitutional convention.

By Election Day, Nov. 6, it’s quite possible that additional millions of dollars will go into advertising, public relations and other efforts regarding the ConAm and ConCon. The problem is that Hawaii voters will at best have a few days to find out exactly who is spending what to influence their views.

Early Voting 2018 Honolulu Hale. 4 aug 2018
More than 100,000 people statewide voted at early polling locations and through the mail in the August primary. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That’s because the next deadline for non-candidate committees (namely, political action committees) is not until Oct. 29. By then, it’s likely that a majority of Hawaii voters will have already cast their ballots, given that a majority now vote early rather than walking into polling places on the first Tuesday of November. Absentee ballots will be mailed out by mid-October. Early walk-in voting begins Oct. 23.

The Oct. 29 deadline for the PAC financial disclosures with the state Campaign Spending Commission will only show contributions and receipts from late September through Oct. 22. Late contributions from Oct. 23 through Nov. 2 that exceed $500 won’t be reported until Nov. 5.

There is even less transparency when it comes to campaign finance reports for candidates, because they didn’t have to file reports earlier this week. Oct. 29 is also their deadline to release fundraising and spending data covering the period from Aug. 12 (the day after the primary) through Oct. 22. Late contributions for candidates follow the same reporting schedule as PACs.

This is a tremendous disservice to voters and to the state of Hawaii.

The Legislature needs to require PACs and candidates to file additional reports more frequently during the election, so that voters can know who is spending all that money in an attempt to sway their votes.

In the past few elections, the state has seen tens of millions of dollars spent, much of it during the last weeks of campaigning.

In 2014, for example, the last time there was a governor’s race, more than $21 million was raised and nearly the same amount spent by candidates for all offices. Over $9 million was spent in the governor’s race alone.

PAC money also flowed freely that year, thanks to a Maui County citizen initiative to temporarily ban genetically engineered organisms. Opponents of the measure, including Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, raised $7.9 million to defeat the bill.

Other big spending in Maui elections in 2014 came from a PAC called Forward Progress, headed by the pro-development Pacific Resource Partnership’s then executive director, John White. PRP, you will recall, was a major player in the 2012 mayoral race in Honolulu, spending more than $3 million to defeat former Gov. Ben Cayetano, the anti-rail candidate facing Kirk Caldwell.

Forward Progress spent $877,000 to oppose Maui County Council candidate Elle Cochran and Hawaii County Council candidate Margaret Wille in 2014. It supported more than a half-dozen candidates, including Carol Fukunaga and Brandon Elefante, who won races for the Honolulu City Council, and Mike White (who won a Maui Council seat) and Ka’ala Buenconsejo and Joe Pontanilla (who both lost Maui Council seats).

Total receipts and disbursements for 13 ballot issue committees in Hawaii’s 2014 election. Source: Campaign Spending Commission. 

All told, $12.4 million was spent on 2014 ballot issues statewide. Just over 40 percent went to advertising, with the remainder spent on expenses such as postage, printing, surveys, voter lists, rents and office supplies.

Amazingly, Maui’s GMO measure still passed by a 1,077-vote margin. It was later invalidated by a court. Those hoping to vanquish this year’s ConAm and ConCon measures have a lower bar to meet: Ballots left blank actually count as “no” votes on these measures.

The outside Maui money in 2014 prompted the Hawaii Legislature in 2015 to pass a bill requiring non-candidate committees to file an additional finance report Oct. 1 of each general election year.

That was a good start. But it’s long past time for the Legislature to require candidates to file by Oct. 1, too, and require additional more frequent reporting from all committees, recognizing that voting patterns have changed considerably.

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