The Hawaii Legislature opens for business on Jan. 15, when we can expect several thousand bills to be introduced. It’s a lot to keep an eye on, even for advocacy groups and journalists like yours truly who track this stuff closely.

A new online tool from the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Institute on Money in Politics (better known as FollowTheMoney.org) can help sort through the data fog. Called the Power Map, it draws on massive databases of campaign donors and state legislatures nationwide to give a visual indication where lawmakers might lean on certain issues.

As the organization said in a press release in November, “Money + Decisions = Power.”

I test-drove the Power Map with a Hawaii focus and, while there are some kinks and limitations, I found it a useful tool to help quickly visualize the ties between contributions, legislation and legislators.

The Power Map can’t tell you how a lawmaker will vote on specific issues, but it can show you how they might lean based on who has contributed to their campaigns and what leadership position they hold in the Legislature. If you represent an advocacy group trying to sway a bill’s outcome, that information is no small thing.

This screen shot from FollowTheMoney’s Power Map shows how Hawaii legislators might lean on whether to raise the state’s minimum wage.

Let’s take one issue that may well be before lawmakers next session: increasing Hawaii’s minimum wage.

In the 2019 session, the latest draft of House Bill 1191 called for raising the wage from its current $10.10 an hour to $15 by 2023 and to $17 for state employees. HB 1191 died in the final hours of conference committee near the session’s end, although it carries over to the 2020 session and could be revived.

Using the Power Map, I selected HB 1191. Knowing that the business community generally opposes a wage hike, I selected “general business” as an industry and the “Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii” (the “voice of business” in the islands, as it is self-described) as a contributor.

What Did I Learn?

Power Map determined that Rep. Scott Matayoshi received the highest “likely support score” of any House member, or 74.4%. Matayoshi, a Democrat, also received $400 in donations from general business, although not from the chamber. He also sits on the House Finance Committee, one of the two House panels that heard the bill, and is a co-introducer of HB 1191.

But Power Map also determined that more than a dozen reps scored minus 100%, meaning they were deemed to be the least supportive of HB 1191. As it turned out, all of them actually voted to pass HB 1191.

So, Power Map sucks, then? No, but it certainly can be misleading to the casual observer.

Supporters wearing Living Wage Hawaii shirts listen to Labor committee hearing.

Supporters in support of increasing the state’s minimum wage at a hearing at the Capitol in January. A new Power Map helps track how campaign contributions might influence a bill’s outcome.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For example, one of the legislators who scored as likely opposing the wage increase was Democrat Sylvia Luke, who is reported to have received nearly $90,000 in donations from general businesses, $2,385 of it from the chamber. Luke’s “decision-making power” score was a mere 6.45, compared to Republican Bob McDermott, who scored 15.87.

Bob McDermott has more power than Sylvia Luke, then? Absolutely not.

The Power Map is skewed by the fact that McDermott sits on five committees including Finance. Luke is identified as sitting on only one committee — Finance — where she is chair.

Indeed, the lawmaker with the highest power score regarding HB 1191 was Sen. Kurt Fevella (58.5%) which was almost 10 points higher than Gov. David Ige. But as the only Republican in the 25-member state Senate, Fevella is the minority leader and he sits on every committee.

Peter Quist, a research director with FollowTheMoney, acknowledged via email that Fevella’s score is inflated and that the Power Map is still a work in progress.

“Yet another example for us of how every state has its own adventures,” he said.

Not Inside Baseball

The Power Map also tracks only the final version of a bill, not its various incarnations as it moves through the legislative process. It does not pretend to offer an inside-baseball level of detail.

The map won’t tell you that Luke voted for HB 1191 as it moved from the House to the Senate but “with reservations.” Nor will it explain that she was co-chair of the bill’s conference committee along with Labor Chair Aaron Ling Johanson, the author of HB 1191.

And, it won’t explain that, as Finance chair, Luke has more influence than most in deciding whether a bill lives or dies.

The Power Map tutorial:

But the Power Map does suggest through its x-y axis coordinates that HB 1191 faced an uphill battle in getting passed. (See the screen shot on this page.)

It’s far from a definitive predictor, however. Plug in a different contributor or industry — or select other criteria such as “party” or “leadership position” — and the map will spit out a different result based on new criteria.

“Take a look and play around with it,” its backers suggest. “The quick tutorial will be well worth your time.”

It is.

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