The Sunshine Blog: Reform Momentum Continues, Reining In Pay To Play, Gifts That Keep On Giving - Honolulu Civil Beat

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The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Short takes, outtakes, observations and other stuff you should know about public information, government accountability and ethical leadership in Hawaii.

Marathon man: House Judiciary Chair David Tarnas is continuing to move forward government reform bills efficiently and with the graciousness that has come to be a hallmark of his new leadership of the committee.

Tarnas is one chair who takes time to patiently explain any changes or amendments, including why he is not moving a bill forward. On Friday, he had a plate full of sunshine bills to handle in just that manner, including fielding testimony from commenters both local and national, in person and online.

By the end of the hearing, which ran more than two hours, the committee heard 15 bills involving elections and campaign finance plus a few on other topics. The committee passed out 13 of the reform measures, all of which had originated in the Senate and included a few ideas that had not been on the agenda of various state commissions that have been behind most of the accountability legislation this session.

Two bills that sought to limit how much money super PACs could spend opposing candidates were killed after the Attorney General’s Office warned they would run afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s previous rulings (like in the Citizens United case) that spending money is a right of free speech.

House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Chair David Tarnas, right, moved more than a dozen sunshine bills out of committee and closer to becoming reality on Friday. At left is vice chair Rep. Gregg Takayama. (Screenshot/2023)

Some brief highlights of bills that got the Judiciary Committee’s approval:

Senate Bill 1076: The much bandied-about voter guide. Dissed by the House earlier after the AG and elections officials argued about it, the measure remained alive in the Senate and now has been approved by House Judiciary after the agencies seemingly sorted out their differences. The digital voter guide received overwhelming support on Friday — “I love this bill,” citizen activist Kat Brady told the committee — from various people who see it as a major contribution to voter education. They think it could even improve Hawaii’s pathetically low voter turnout rate. Scott Nago, the state’s chief elections officer, noted that his office estimates a cost of $171,248 to put such a guide together. The measure heads now to the House Finance Committee for review.

Senate Bill 1179: An effort to keep foreign nationals and foreign business entities from influencing Hawaii elections. This is legislation that is being considered in several states and seeks to close a loophole opened by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision that gives foreign-owned corporations a way to put money into U.S. elections. National proponents are hoping to use state laws and local ordinances to block foreign money.

Senate Bill 627: Allows candidates to use campaign funds for child care. Much testimony in support of this one, including a representative from the national Vote Mama organization who told the committee the Federal Election Commission has approved this for federal candidates. The group is working to pass similar approval in all 50 states.

Senate Bill 201: Prohibits state and county contractors and grantees, their owners, officers and immediate family members from making campaign contributions. This expands a ban already in place on the companies themselves. Read more about this in our next blog, because the Senate Judiciary passed it too and the House committee adopted that version.

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Perhaps the most robust discussion of the House hearing came in regard to Senate Bill 1543, the proposal to set up a substantial public financing program for candidates running for all state and county elected offices. The bill, like all the others, passed unanimously but not before committee members raised a red flag about how much it might cost — possibly $30 million — and whether the state can afford a program of that nature.

Tarnas and committee vice chair Rep. Gregg Takayama pointed out that even though the House last week passed a roughly $19 billion budget the spending plan didn’t include, among other things, about 140 proposals passed by the House and sent to the Senate that totaled about $500 million.

Even with funding far from certain, Tarnas amended the bill to require that many state and county council candidates get at least 200 small donations from voters in their districts to show they are serious candidates with significant support from voters before they qualify for thousands of dollars in public financing.

Is the end in sight for pay to play?: The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Friday to advance House Bill 724, which would ban government contractors and state and county grantees (that’s all those nonprofits that get grant-in-aid money) from making campaign contributions to political candidates. The bans would also extend to the officers of those entities as well as their immediate family members.

As noted above, later on Friday the House Judiciary Committee replaced the similar but not quite the same Senate Bill 201 with House Bill 724. So now they match.

HB 724 had just one committee referral so its next stop is a full Senate vote. But it did get a change Friday that its chair hadn’t foreseen.

The committee amended the bill to exempt qualifying contributions required to access publicly financed campaign funds. Candidates who want to tap into public financing need to raise a predetermined amount of $5 contributions. The original bill would have included those in the ban.

“It seems to me the same logic applies here,” committee chair Sen. Karl Rhoads said during a brief discussion. He originally planned to pass the measure without any changes.

Sen. Joy San Buenaventura was concerned the measure could “make it difficult for grassroots campaigns.”

Rhoads ended up recommending the committee exempt donations for contributions required to access public campaign financing. 

At the House hearing, Judiciary chair David Tarnas said he didn’t really quite get what San Buenaventura was talking about but adopted the amended version anyway.

Earlier in the Senate hearing, Dan Foley, chairman of the standards commission that proposed a measure similar to HB 724, said the intent of banning contractors from making donations is to avoid instances of pay to play, where the executives at a company make donations to politicians in exchange for favors.

Although the bill originally would have covered small donations as well, he said those aren’t what the ban was necessarily intended for.

“The rice and chili fundraiser usually isn’t thought of as pay to play,” Foley said.

And in other recent sunshine action: One way political officeholders ingratiate themselves to their communities is by donating to charitable causes.

But is that a proper use of money they received in the form of campaign contributions?

No, said the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, formed last year in the wake of numerous scandals involving public officials, including two former legislators convicted of taking bribes. The commission proposed House Bill 727 to prohibit candidates from spending campaign donations on non-campaign items.

“Contributions to community groups are simply ‘seeding the community’ for future votes,” wrote Janet Mason of the League of Women Voters in testimony supporting the measure.

Mason, who was also a member of the standards commission, added, “When making donations this way, the candidate is effectively substituting his/her judgment about which organizations deserve financial support instead of permitting donors to make this choice.”

Plenty of campaign donations in Hawaii don’t get spent on campaigns.

“In the 2022 campaign reporting period nearly $216,000 was donated to charities, full-time scholarships, public schools, and public libraries,” Mason said in her testimony. “Also in 2022, in addition to community contributions, $350,577 was devoted to purchasing tickets for other candidates’ fundraisers.”

Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Janet Mason listens to members speak.
Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Janet Mason at a meeting last year. She later testified on behalf of the League of Women Voters in favor of prohibiting candidates from spending campaign donations on non-campaign items. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Those may very well be for good causes, with the possible exception of other candidates’ fundraisers. But the bill would have banned using campaign coffers to pass out money to charities, schools and libraries, as well as the longtime practice of using them to buy two tickets to fundraising events of other politicians.

Still, the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 23 dropped almost all of those prohibitions, retaining only the ban on buying tickets to other candidates’ fundraisers.

“Your Committee believes that there is merit in allowing campaign funds to be donated or awarded for certain public purposes, such as public schools, public libraries, or even to award scholarships to full-time students,” committee chair Tarnas later wrote in the bill report. “Restoring the authority to donate campaign funds for certain uses ensures that monies received by a campaign are returned to the public for the betterment of public services and to provide educational opportunities to students.”

The lighter-weight bill is now scheduled for a hearing Tuesday at 10 a.m. before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The League of Women Voters has submitted new testimony saying it was “disappointed” in the amendments.

“We respectfully ask this committee to restore SB 727 to its original form,” said the league’s Beppie Shapiro.

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

Dan Foley has done some great things this session. But I disagree that "chili and rice" fundraisers aren't considered pay-to-play. What would be the harm in making the playing field completely watertight with no exceptions? Will a politician starve if they don't get manapuas, bentos, and an Aloha lilikoi drink from a private company?...and those lei can be bucks!!

Kalama · 6 months ago

"Scott Nago, the state’s chief elections officer, noted that his office estimates a cost of $171,248 to put such a (voter) guide together." Quite a bargain if it improves voter knowledge of candidates and turnout at the polls.

MsW · 6 months ago

After reading this article, I have plenty of questions now answered (Thank you CB and the Sunshine Staff) - Why in the world would any Politician think it should be okay to spend Campaign funds on "Non-Campaign items" those funds need to be restricted for use on "items/things" related to the Campaign in general, I've always been led to believe that "Fundraisers" are used to raise funds to meet goals (in this instance) to improve their Campaigns, not to buy Dish Soap for the family because its needed. I would love to see some kind of restriction put on just how much can be invested into the PAC sponsor ADS. But honestly what I'm seeing is very little is going to change for the future.

unclebob61 · 6 months ago

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