Hawaii lawmakers may limit their own ability to raise money for their political campaigns during the legislative session in response to felony charges leveled against two former lawmakers who took bribes to aid a Honolulu businessman.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday on Senate Bill 555, which would ban mid-session fundraisers. The ban would also apply to the Legislature’s special sessions.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that SB 555 would exclude fundraisers held on holidays and weekends.

For years, lawmakers have considered similar measures but never passed any of them. In-session fundraising has been lucrative for a handful of legislators.

But good government groups have long pushed for an end to that practice because it gives the impression that donors are buying undue political influence — or worse — actually bribing lawmakers.

Things might change this year. Sen. Karl Rhoads, the chairman of the Senate committee hearing the bill, expects SB 555 to pass the full Senate.

A measure to ban fundraisers during the legislative session is gaining traction in the Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“The idea’s been around forever. But this time, it’s just the shock and anger of what happened — that was the impetus to move the bill forward,” Rhoads said, referring to the two cases of legislative bribery involving former lawmakers J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen.

English and Cullen both pleaded guilty for failing to report bribes they took from wastewater executive Milton Choy.

Choy, members of his family, and employees of various businesses that he owns donated more than $356,000 to various campaigns since 2014.

Neal Milner, a retired political science professor, sees bribery as a direct way of buying political influence.

“This is about the most indirect way,” Milner said of campaign donors. “There’s this kind of process that works, people get to meet you, know you. They get to understand you. You gave money, and now you’ve become a player.”

SB 555 would clamp down on lawmakers seeking political donations while they are working directly on legislation. It also seeks to prevent donors from buying face time and access to lawmakers that members of the public, who don’t have thousands of dollars to blow on fundraising tickets, can’t get during session.

Before the pandemic started, lawmakers were holding an increasing number of fundraisers in the middle of the session. Those kinds of fundraisers tended to be more common in election years.

 

The number peaked in 2018, when legislators held 83 in-session fundraisers, according to notices on file with the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, supports SB 555 but said it wouldn’t do away with all political contributions during session.

“Sure, you could ban fundraisers, but you could still meet with people and then the money could still come in,” Ma said.

Common Cause is asking the Senate to impose an additional ban on accepting any political contributions during session, including for candidates seeking statewide offices.

The 2018 session preceded the Hawaii governor’s race, as well as other races for higher office.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who at the time was a state senator on the campaign trail for his current office, held nine fundraisers during that year’s session, the most of any candidate.

City Councilmember Andria Tupola, who ran unsuccessfully for governor, held five fundraisers during the 2018 legislative session.

Twenty-eight states place restrictions on lawmakers receiving campaign contributions during the legislative session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those states 15 also ban lawmakers from accepting any campaign contributions during session.

Maryland extends that prohibition to the state’s governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller.

Nevada has extra restrictions on its lawmakers. All members of the Nevada Legislature, as well as the governor and lieutenant governor, are banned from accepting or soliciting donations 30 days prior to the start of the session as well as 30 days after session has adjourned.

In Hawaii, individuals, special interests groups, lobbyists, activists and other lawmakers have donated nearly $6.3 million to state lawmakers and candidates seeking a legislative seat while the Legislature was in session between 2014 and 2021, according to Campaign Spending Commission data.

Rhoads said the point of the new law would be to decouple any fundraisers from the legislative process —  for instance, holding a fundraiser around the time of a key committee vote.

Still, Rhoads said curbing fundraising practices would amount to a major cultural change among the islands’ politicians.

“I’ve been kicking around Hawaii politics for 25 years now, and there’s always been fundraising during session,” Rhoads said. “It’s legal. For the scrupulous, there’s no ethical problem as long as you don’t tie (a donation) to something else.”

That quid pro quo could be difficult to ascertain even with a ban on fundraising. That’s why Milner sees it as just a tiny step toward decreasing the influence of money in politics. He points out that there’s plenty of time to donate to campaigns when lawmakers are not in session.

“If you’ve got the money, you can try and buy influence all sorts of ways,” Milner said.

 

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