A commission to enhance government transparency in Hawaii is weighing a handful of measures aimed at tightening campaign finance laws and reducing the influence of money in politics in a year where several prolific political donors made headlines for alleged bribery.

In February, former lawmakers J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen were charged with being part of a bribery scheme to influence legislation after they accepted cash payments and other gifts from a wealthy wastewater executive.

And earlier this month, former Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, along with local contractor Dennis Mitsunaga and several of his associates, were arrested on federal bribery charges after federal prosecutors alleged that Mitsunaga used campaign donations to pay off Kaneshiro.

The recent cases led to the creation of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, which plans to come back to the Legislature with proposals on government ethics, elections and more.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct debated a handful of measures to tighten campaign spending laws. Screenshot: Hawaii Senate/2022

On Wednesday, the agency in charge of overseeing state campaign finance laws came before the new commission with ideas for eliminating pay-to-play schemes in political donations.

State law already bans companies from donating to candidates if they are currently working on a government contract. But a loophole in the law still allows employees and officers of those companies to continue making political donations.

Staff at the Campaign Spending Commission proposed closing that loophole. Dan Foley, the standards commission chairman, suggested the proposal could be expanded further to cover contractors who bid on projects.

Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao said enforcing the current law has been difficult because each county handles procurement differently. To properly enforce the law, she said the state and counties would need a centralized hub where contracts can be more easily monitored by the commission.

“That’s something we could look at. Right now, there’s really nothing centralized for us to look at that’s consistent,” Izumi-Nitao said.

Another proposal would put an end to a practice by state lawmakers that exploits a legal loophole allowing them to funnel campaign funds to their colleagues.

Elected officials are generally prohibited from using their campaign funds to donate to other lawmakers. But some, particularly those with large war chests, often buy tickets to their colleagues’ fundraisers to get around the prohibition.

The tactic has been used to help curry favor with lawmakers and prop up the factions that run the House and Senate.

And while lawmakers passed a bill this year that would ban fundraising events while the Legislature is in session, the commission is calling on them to go a step further and prohibit accepting any campaign donations during that time as well.

Izumi-Nitao said that the commission still needs to discuss how the ban could be applied to county councils, the mayors and the governor – officials who don’t have a set time to meet each year to pass bills like the Legislature.

The commission also considered measures to increase fines on super PACs that violate spending laws, target expenses by lawmakers and impose further limits on campaign donations per election cycle.

The commission informally approved those ideas. It has until December to finalize a list of measures to propose in the 2023 legislative session.

The members seemed less keen on taking up a proposal to expand public financing for Hawaii elections. Candidates can become eligible for public financing if they agree to limit their expenses. In exchange, they can qualify for money to partially fund their campaign.

Proponents argue expanding public financing could help eliminate the influence of money in politics.

Jonathan Wayne, who oversees public financing of elections in Maine, urged the commission to consider the costs, warning that Hawaii would need the staff to oversee a public funding program.

The Maine Legislature transfers $3 million each year to help fund campaigns that agree to similar provisions.

Hawaii’s public election fund stands at about $1.6 million. The primary source of funding comes from a $3 donation that Hawaii residents can make when they file their taxes. Annual revenues from those donations have dropped from over $210,000 in 2010 to about $125,000 in 2021.

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