Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories that looks closely at specific issues facing Hawaii and how the Democratic gubernatorial candidates would deal with them. Civil Beat also teamed up with Hawaii News Now for in-depth interviews with the top candidates for governor in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. You can find the full interviews on our Governor Race election page, along with all our coverage of the run-up to the primary.

Both Vicky Cayetano and Lt. Gov. Josh Green say term limits for state lawmakers is the most urgently needed government reform proposal in Hawaii, but admit it won’t be easy to put term limits into place.

Civil Beat asked the leading Democratic candidates for governor for their highest-priority initiative for ethics and government reform, and both the former lawmaker Green and Cayetano cited term limits as key.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, another top contender in the Democratic primary, declined to be interviewed for this series, saying through a spokesman he is dissatisfied with the way Civil Beat has covered the governor’s race.

Cayetano said she is puzzled about why Hawaii’s governors, lieutenant governors, county mayors and council members all have term limits, but members of the state House and Senate do not.

“When they’re there for too long, that becomes the only world they know, and unfortunately I think that they need to get out to know the world that they serve,” Cayetano said of members of the Legislature.

Green, who served two terms in the state House and two and a half terms in the state Senate, said term limits of four consecutive two-year terms for each state House member and two four-year terms for each member of the state Senate “would make a lot of sense.”

House members gather at the beginning of the first public in person floor session.
Josh Green and Vicky Cayetano note that that county mayors and the Hawaii governor are all term limited, and say members of the House and Senate should also have term limits. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“You would get more diversity and you would get more turnover in the Legislature, and if people do well, they tend to advance” to other offices, he said.

He contends term limits would also reduce the influence of money in politics because term limits would force people to leave office after a set period no matter how much money they have.

Government, campaign finance and ethics reform became front-burner issues this election year after former lawmakers J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen pleaded guilty in a bribery scheme in which they accepted cash payments and other gifts as part of the scheme to influence legislation.

Then last month former Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and a prolific campaign donor named Dennis Mitsunaga were arrested along with several of Mitsunaga’s associates after federal prosecutors alleged Mitsunaga used campaign donations to essentially pay off Kaneshiro.

The state House this year created the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct to vet various proposals on government ethics and reforms before presenting them to the Legislature, but Green is skeptical that state lawmakers will ever vote to put a constitutional question on the ballot to impose term limits on themselves.

In fact, bills introduced in 2021 proposing a constitutional amendment to set term limits for lawmakers died without a single hearing or vote. A resolution proposed to study term limits also died without a hearing earlier this year.

Cayetano said the public will have to demand term limits, and she would make her pitch for term limits directly to the voters. “I think that’s out there already. When I go to community events … by and large, they feel very strongly about that.”

Green said a reform that is more likely to pass is limiting fundraising by state legislators during session, when they are considering and voting on legislation in which donors may have an interest. He said he also supports restrictions on fundraisers for Hawaii governors when legislation is before the governor awaiting either his signature or veto.

Cayetano said she also supports a ban on fundraising during session, and the Legislature this year approved a bill to prohibit fundraising events during session, However, lawmakers continued to accept donations while session was underway.

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Green has been the most aggressive fundraiser of this election, holding more than two dozen fundraisers this year alone, and raising more than $3.17 million for this year’s campaign. Kahele in particular has criticized Green for raising large sums from out of state donors.

For all of his fundraising prowess, Green said he supports “any kind of common-sense public financing” of campaigns. But he contends the best way to pursue public funding of elections is to make the public airwaves available to any candidate who meets a basic standard of support.

He suggested gathering the signatures of 10% of the registered voters in a district might be an appropriate threshold, and said “making available the public airwaves in an equal way would then dramatically reduce costs,” he said.

The state could compensate commercial television stations, and Green said that would be “much better than trying to write a check from the taxpayers (to the candidates).”

“Having written a lot of large checks for TV and radio, I can tell you that would have a much better impact,” he said.

To commit free airwave time to candidates would be “the great equalizer,” he said.

However, Green acknowledged that would likely require federal action — the Federal Communications Commission regulates radio, cable and traditional television networks — and said it is “very unlikely” that would ever happen.

Green said he is also concerned with “individuals who come in with (a) vast fortune” that they can commit to a political contest.

“It’s not really fair to people who work hard at this for years. I’ve had over 4,000 donors, right? It took years and years and years to earn people’s trust, and I think that there’s some merit to that,” he said.

In a dig at Cayetano, Green contends it is unfair to allow a wealthy person to enter a race and spend vast sums of their own money to win, “but I don’t know how you would legislate against that. I just don’t think it’s going to be constitutional.”

Cayetano, a successful businesswoman, had loaned her campaign for governor $1.52 million as of the end of last month.

Cayetano for her part has been advocating for a ban on corporate and union donations to candidates, and tighter restrictions on out-of state donations. She contends the maximum allowable percentage of out-of-state contributions should be lowered from 30% today to a more modest 10% or 15%.

Green received the maximum $6,000 donations from a number of unions, and a recent analysis by the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission showed more than 27% of the contributions larger than $100 that the Green campaign for governor had received as of the end of last year were from out of state.

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