A high-ranking state senator and a coalition of progressive groups announced plans to introduce a bill to put $30 million worth of public funds toward financing campaigns for political office in Hawaii to reduce the influence of donations from special interest groups each election cycle.

The measure unveiled Monday during a press conference would make gubernatorial candidates eligible to receive up to $2.5 million each to finance their campaigns, while those running for the Senate and the House could expect to get up to $100,000 and $50,000 respectively.

To qualify for those funds, candidates would need to obtain $5 donations from a certain number of people — 6,250 for a gubernatorial candidate and 100 per district for a candidate for the state House.

The benchmark is high and requirements are fairly complicated to make sure only serious candidates utilize the program.

Evan Weber, front left, wtih Sen. Karl Rhoads, back left, and Rep. Jeanne Kapela, back right, announced a bill to expand Hawaii’s program for publicly financing campaigns. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2023

Senate Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads said he plans to introduce the full public funding program in this year’s legislative session, which begins on Jan. 18.

“It’s intentionally fairly difficult so that not everybody can run, not every fringe candidate can run,” Rhoads said during the press conference. “If you’re going to run for the Legislature, where we’re dealing with the most complicated issues, you need be able to figure out how to get through the rules even if they are somewhat complicated. We would be giving you, if you qualify, a pretty large sum of money. We don’t want incompetent people running for office.”

Others hope that publicly funding a good number of campaigns could reduce the influence that wealthy donors and businesses have in Hawaii and lessen the likelihood that candidates may feel beholden to the people bankrolling their races. Statewide, candidates took in close to $20 million in the 2022 election period.

“For too long luxury developers, big tourism, big agriculture, energy monopolies and the other people that pull the strings behind the scenes have had too big of a say in our democratic process, the wealthy and well connected have a stranglehold on our politics,” Evan Weber, chairperson of the progressive Our Hawaii super-PAC, told reporters.

The new bill would not ban candidates from accepting those donations, so many would likely still opt for private fundraising.

Expanding An Existing Program

Hawaii already has a partial public funding program that allows candidates to tap into funds so long as they agree to limit the amount of their own fundraising.

Former Gov. David Ige utilized that resource to help fund his first campaign for governor in 2014, unseating incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Last year, former U.S. Rep Kai Kahele wanted to mirror Ige’s victory by accessing public funds for his own gubernatorial campaign, but he missed a deadline for paperwork.

Hawaii County piloted the idea of fully funded public elections in 2010 and 2012, but that program expired due to insufficient funds, according to the state Campaign Spending Commission website.

As it stands now, Hawaii makes $215,000 available in both the primary and general elections for gubernatorial candidates. County mayors are eligible for between $9,699 on Kauai and $113,375 on Oahu. Amounts vary for other races.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct also recommended that the Legislature pass a measure increasing the amount of money candidates who participate in the current program may access.

While the commission’s proposal would direct more money to some candidates, Rhoads and those who support full public financing say it doesn’t go far enough. Rhoads’ bill in theory could cover all the costs of a campaign.

The chart below shows the number of qualifying donations that would be required for each office and the total amount of public funding available in each race, according to the bill:

Candidates for Honolulu prosecutor would need 563 qualifying contributions and would be eligible for up to $225,000; candidates for prosecuting attorney on Hawaii island would need 100 qualifying contributions and could receive up to $40,000; and candidates for Kauai County prosecutor would need 63 qualifying contributions and could receive up to $25,000. Screenshot/Our Hawaii/2022

Rhoads modeled the bill after laws in states like Maine, which has one of the most robust systems for publicly financing campaigns in the country. Details in the bill may change since it’s still being drafted, according to Rhoads’ office.

Initial $30 Million Disbursement

Candidates would be required to hand over their qualifying donations before accessing public funds, which in turn would help fund the program. Their list of qualifying donors would also need to be verified by a county clerk and certified by the Campaign Spending Commission.

Once they receive public funds, candidates would not be allowed to use any other sources of money on their campaigns, including personal funds.

Candidates who run unopposed would only receive 30% of the total public fund amount. The state would not be required to make any disbursements if money isn’t available.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said 60% of candidates for the Legislature last year utilized the public funding program in that state.

The office also disbursed $4.5 million to candidates in 2022, up from $3.8 million in 2020.

But asking taxpayers to fund not only elections but also candidate campaigns could be a hard sell. In Maine, the public funding law arose out of a citizen’s initiative ratified by voters, a process not available to residents in Hawaii.

Wayne said the single largest source of Maine’s public funding program is a $3 million infusion from the state’s general fund.

Rhoads’ bill proposes an initial $30 million disbursement from the general fund. He and the bill’s supporters note that amounts to less than about 0.2% of the state’s general fund budget.

“In a democracy, elections are a critical function,” Rhoads said. “For that to be generally funded makes perfect sense. It’s a critical government function.”

Wayne said Hawaii should look to other states that have adopted similar laws on public financing for elections, and noted that funding those programs will be a major component of what law eventually is passed.

“What are the problems trying to be solved? And how well do the specifics of the programs meet those objectives?” Wayne said in a phone interview. “Naturally, one has to think through the cost of the program versus all the other priorities and programs in state government.”

Read the draft bill below:

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author