The state agency in charge of regulating money in elections hopes to make advertising disclosure requirements easier on small-time campaigns.

The Campaign Spending Commission levied over $6,900 worth of fines against 20 candidates at a meeting Wednesday. Almost all of the fines came because of a failure to comply with rules over advertising disclosures that many new candidates have found confusing.

Confusion over that law has led to hefty fines in previous meetings in the last two years. Right now, the law requires campaigns to file what’s called an electioneering communication report within 24 hours of signing a contract for an advertisement.

The commission plans to lobby the Legislature to require disclosure once an ad runs instead of when a contract is executed.

State Campaign Spending Chair Bryan Luke during meeting.
Bryan Luke, chair of the Campaign Spending Commission, asked the commission to lobby state lawmakers on changes to a law requiring advertising disclosures. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Wednesday, the heftiest fine — $1,125 — went to Rep. Richard Onishi, who was not present at the commission’s Zoom meeting. The second highest fine of $750 was against Megan Kau, a candidate for Honolulu prosecutor.

The commission could have assessed fines totaling more than $18,000 against all the candidates but granted most leniency since it was their first offense.

Electioneering reports are meant to fill in the gaps between other campaign reports by giving the public a glimpse into how much money candidates or special interest groups are paying to influence their votes. 

The reports are meant to catch much of the large ad buys made by major campaigns.

But in practice, the law requiring disclosure has surprised new candidates and gotten complicated when applied to social media ads whose reporting periods don’t quite mesh with the state’s requirements.

Holeka Inaba, a candidate for Hawaii County Council District 8, was caught off guard by the law. He noted that he used Facebook ads. Candidates at past meetings have said that Facebook does not charge their accounts until people start seeing the ad.

That has made fulfilling the 24-hour disclosure requirement difficult.

“The law is not necessarily reflected in the way people advertise,” Bryan Luke, the commission chair, said.

Mailers have also posed a problem, as has happened with Rep. Bert Kobayashi’s campaign, which was fined $166 Wednesday.

“This was a matter of confusion and forgetfulness,” the lawmaker told the commission.

Holeka Inaba, a candidate for Hawaii County Council, was among new candidates caught off guard by ad disclosure rules. 

He said that he contracted for two sets of mailers to be sent to his district stretching from Waialae to Kahala, but his campaign decided to hold off on one set of those mailers until the general election period. 

“We weren’t sure if we executed a contract and forgot about doing the filing for electioneering communication,” Kobayashi said.

Luke reiterated that the reports must be filed when a contract is executed, even if ads do not run at that time.

At another point in the meeting, he implored the commission staff to lobby the Legislature on clarifications to the law. They appear ready to do that come January.

On Wednesday, the commission advanced a package of eight bills that staff will ask lawmakers to consider when the Legislature convenes.

One bill would allow candidates to file advertising reports within 24 hours of those ads running or being publicly distributed. The bill would also increase the annual threshold for reporting such ads from $2,000 to $5,000.

Neal Herbert, a commissioner, questioned how the commission arrived at the $5,000 amount.

Kristin Izumi-Nitao, the commission’s executive director, said the higher threshold could give smaller campaigns a longer timeline to start filing the electioneering reports.

“We’re trying to be fair,” she said.

Izumi-Nitao added, “We just are trying to appreciate the hardship it does cause, but continue with the need of accountability and transparency.”

Herbert estimated that most of the cases brought to the commission would not have met the $5,000 threshold.

The commission also pushed forward other bills that were introduced in previous sessions including measures dealing with nonresident donations, assessing fines from a candidate’s personal funds, reimbursements and contested case hearings.

One new measure would remove a requirement for unsuccessful primary candidates to file a report during the general election period. Another would clarify that the commission has the power to bring complaints against campaigns.

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