Hawaii lawmakers accepted half-a-million dollars worth of campaign cash during the 2022 legislative session even as calls to end that practice went unheeded.

And that’s just a portion of the $7.8 million state politicians raked in during legislative sessions in the last decade from lobbyists, developers, labor unions and other special interest groups while making budget and policy decisions that could affect their interests, an analysis of campaign spending records shows.

Good-government groups and even a commission convened by state lawmakers to strengthen ethics laws have asked that the practice of accepting campaign contributions during session come to an end. The goal is to limit even the appearance of a pay-to-play culture that favors those who have money over those who do not.

Finance Chair Sylvia Luke is flanked by right, Senator Dela Cruz and left, Representative Kyle Yamashita during joint House and Senate budget conference committee meetings held at the Capitol.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, right, and Rep. Sylvia Luke, center, have raised more money than any other lawmakers during legislative sessions in the last decade. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Instead, the Legislature passed a ban on holding any fundraising events during the session, also a common practice that has tapered off in recent years. But such bans won’t stop the campaign cash from flowing in. There were just three fundraising events held this year, compared to the dozens held during past legislative sessions.

That didn’t stop legislators from raising more than $537,000 this year to fund their reelection campaigns or boost them to higher office – all in a year where great attention has been paid to political donations after two former Hawaii lawmakers pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

Much of the in-session money comes from people and groups who have close ties to the Democratic party or hope to influence policy — namely lobbyists and labor unions.

The cash is usually centered at the top, with legislative leaders like Senate President Ron Kouchi, Vice President Michelle Kidani, and House Speaker Scott Saiki topping the list of politicians raising campaign cash at the Legislature.

But it’s Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Sylvia Luke who have raked in the most campaign cash in the last decade. Dela Cruz has raised $611,258 while Luke raised $486,463 during legislative sessions between 2012 and 2022.

They are the chairs of the Legislature’s powerful money committees that control the state’s budget and have a huge say in which programs get funded. Many bills also pass through their committees, giving them an enormous role in shaping policy in areas such as energy, agriculture, education, Native Hawaiian affairs and others.

Many of the top office holders rarely see serious challengers, allowing them to build their campaign war chests over the years. Lawmakers have doled out money to candidates they like or colleagues who help prop up the factions they lead.

This year, Luke topped the list of lawmakers taking campaign cash this session, with $115,206 raised during the session. She’s followed by Rep. Val Okimoto, who raised $53,838 this session.

Luke is running for lieutenant governor while Okimoto is leaving the House to run for the Honolulu City Council. They aren’t the first lawmakers to build up their campaign war chests while legislating, in order to run for higher office.

In 2018, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, then a state senator, raised $174,000 during the session. His opponent in the LG’s race, former Sen. Jill Tokuda, raised about $100,000.

In 2014, Gov. David Ige, then chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, raised $103,911 to bolster his first run at the governor’s office. Ige has since joined in calls to end in-session campaign donations. He is leaving office after this year due to term limits.

So too have candidates in the LG’s race this year. Top Democratic candidates Ikaika Anderson, Keith Amemiya and Sherry Menor-McNamara have all suggested the idea of banning in-session contributions.

Luke has said during various forums and debates this election season that all options for beefing up campaign spending laws should be “on the table.”

Governor David Ige State of the State address 2020 in the House chambers.
Gov. David Ige, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, and legislative leaders like House Speaker Scott Saiki have all accepted campaign contributions during legislative sessions in the last decade. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Saiki, the House speaker, raised $32,551 during the session. He is in another tough race this year with Kim Coco Iwamoto, who almost unseated him in 2020.

Saiki created the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct this year after two former lawmakers were charged by the federal government for taking part in a bribery scheme. The commission also recommended nixing in-session donations.

Saiki said that he hasn’t communicated with the commission but would support a proposal that imposes donation restrictions on all elected offices.

“The legislative session is a hotbed of activity for elected officials at every level, not just state legislators,” Saiki said, adding that county council members, prosecutors, mayors, the governor, lieutenant governor and trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs are all involved with the Legislature at some point.

There’s also worry that only applying the ban to state legislators could create an unfair advantage for other office seekers. Saiki put forward a hypothetical example of a council member fundraising for a run at the Senate. If the ban only applies to legislators, the state senator in that race wouldn’t be able to fundraise for the first few months of the year.

But many lawmakers have spent years collecting donations during past sessions. Money flowed the most in 2018, when legislators brought in a combined $1.4 million. The total amount of donations tends to be higher in election years.

Other States Prohibit Or Restrict Contributions During Session

At least 15 states impose total bans on campaign contributions to lawmakers during legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 13 states restrict only lobbyists from giving during session.

Some states like Nevada and Washington prohibit all governors, LGs and state lawmakers from accepting donations for a period of 30 days before and 30 days after the legislative session.

The top mid-session contributor to legislators’ campaigns in the last decade has been the local union representing iron workers. The union funneled more than $170,000 to campaigns through its various political action committees, including about $7,000 this year.

Anthony Paris, a research analyst at the the Iron Workers Stabilization fund, asked lawmakers to ban all in-session campaign contributions during a hearing on the bill that would only ban fundraisers.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Paris as the head of the fund.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Paris said that the union is now calling for a ban on in-session donations because “we have seen an increase in corruption.” Asked if that means that the union would stop contributing to legislators’ campaigns during the session, Paris said that the union’s board of directors has not taken a policy position on that yet.

“If everyone is banned from doing it, we will comply,” he said.

Other construction industry unions like the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Plumbers and Pipefitters and the local masons unions are also major in-session campaign donors.

Every year, lawmakers allocate billions of dollars for government construction projects. While the Legislature doesn’t select contractors, the unions and the employees they represent all stand to benefit from more government spending on improvement projects.

Other labor unions like the HGEA and HSTA have also donated heavily in years past. There are many issues that crop up at the Legislature that can affect public workers unions in particular.

This year, there was also a big push by lawmakers to raise pay for teachers, something the HSTA supports.

Lobbyists have also donated heavily during sessions. Topping the list is George “Red” Morris, who donated more than $138,000 during legislative sessions between 2012 and 2022. He’s joined by John Radcliffe ($86,000). Both were prolific donors outside of legislative sessions as well.

Radcliffe, an advocate for Hawaii’s medical aid in dying law, died in 2020.

Radcliffe and Morris founded the lobbying firm Capitol Consultants. The firm is headed by Bruce Coppa and Blake Oshiro, both of whom have donated a combined $134,983 to lawmakers during legislative sessions. Coppa and Oshiro both worked in former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office. Oshiro is also a former legislator.

A phone message for Morris left at the Capitol Consultants office was not returned Tuesday.

Capitol Consultants represents dozens of clients each year at the Legislature. Some of them find themselves at the forefront of controversial issues, like vaping.

The firm represents JOCOR Enterprises, which owns the Volcano electronic cigarettes brand. There was a significant focus this session on banning flavored tobacco products. Lawmakers passed a bill that would do that, but Ige vetoed it because of a provision that could have created loopholes for those products to still be sold in Hawaii.

But donations and spending big on lobbying doesn’t always equal success for organizations trying to influence the Legislature. So why donate to lawmakers during session at all?

“Well, at least for us, we do it because there’s an invitation,” Paris, of the iron workers union, said. “We donate when the legislators ask.”

“It’s a cultural phenomenon, that we recognize,” Paris added. “But if it leads toward corruption and people are willing to make the change, we want to support that.

Saiki said it’s an individual choice for lawmakers to decide whether they solicit donations or not. He said he has not solicited donations this year, but did accept those that came through the mail.

Asked if in-session donations sends a message to the public that one needs money to interact with lawmakers, Saiki said he “can see how that perception could exist.”

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