Many found ways to raise big donations even though a new law was intended to limit the influence of special interest money.

Despite a new law banning fundraising during the legislative session, it did not halt the flow of campaign donations to many state senators and representatives.

A Civil Beat review of the latest campaign finance disclosures, which were due late Monday, illustrates that major special interests continue to give generously to lawmakers, especially those who wield a lot of power.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, raised more money — $59,789 — than any of the 76 members of the Legislature from January through June and also reported having the most cash in the bank by far — $983,274.

Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and Co Chair Gil Keith Agaran during hearing on funding emergency appropriations in response to future COVID-19 Coronavirus health concerns.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz, left, and vice char Gil Keith-Agaran raised tens of thousands of dollars during the first six months of the year, much of it at a fundraiser in the days before session began. They also continued to accept donations during session. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020)

Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, the WAM vice chair, raised $48,785. His donors include University of Hawaii President David Lassner and many of the same big names who gave to Dela Cruz.

Keith-Agaran now has $149,444 in cash, even though neither he nor Dela Cruz are up for reelection until 2026.

Other lawmakers who saw steady contributions to their campaign coffers are the new chair of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Kyle Yamashita, and the new chair of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, Rep. David Tarnas.

Yamashita reported $29,738 in receipts. The contributions come from a wide range of unions, banks, shippers, developers and lobbyists and include the likes of Maui developer Everett Dowling and real estate investment trust Nareit Hawaii.

Yamashita now reports $72,484 in cash on hand, making him a well-funded incumbent should he seek reelection next year. In the 2020 election, for example, House incumbents spent on average $36,000 compared with just $17,000 for their challengers.

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Tarnas took in $11,925 in donations. Some came from employees from prominent legal firms like John Sabas of Carlsmith Ball — he is not a lawyer but is director of public and governmental affairs — and Davis Levin & Livingston. Tarnas now has $49,870 in cash on hand.

Money, as they say, is the mother’s milk of politics, and there is data to support that. In the 2020 election, for example — the most recent election year for which analyzed data is available — incumbent senators spent on average about $130,000 while challengers raised only about $7,600.

The fundraising hauls for the three chairs underscores why their positions are considered so powerful, and why donors are happy to donate to them. Dela Cruz’s donors include a lot of developers such as Stanford Carr and energy interests such as Par Pacific Holdings.

Even Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Karl Rhoads took in a respectable amount of money — $6,813 — during the first six months of this year. His donors included some of the same lawyers who gave to Tarnas, including Galiher DeRobertis & Waxman. Rhoads has $105,234 in cash.

‘The Public Trust’

Act 282, which was passed in 2022 and went into effect Jan. 1, was passed because legislators recognized that campaign fundraiser events held during legislative sessions “diminish the public trust.” No state or county official is allowed to hold a fundraiser that identifies a price to be charged or suggests a contribution for attendance during regular or special sessions of the Legislature.

What many lawmakers are now doing, however, is raising their money just before session begins and right after. Many of the donations in the latest filings came before Jan. 18, when session started, and after May 4, when session ended.

For instance, Will Kane, senior vice president for the political consulting and PR firm Strategies 360, gave Rep. Cedric Gates $500 on Jan. 17. And Rep. Troy Hashimoto accepted $2,000 from Friends of Takashi Ohno, a former rep, on Jan. 24.

House Finance Chair Kyle Yamashita was one legislator who raised considerably more money during the first six months of theyear, which included the period the Legislature was in session. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Dela Cruz reported receipts of only $1,400 in the three-month reporting period from October through December. Agaran reported only $250 in a single contribution during that period.

But once session was about to begin the cash began to flow in.

Dela Cruz and Keith-Agaran held a joint fundraiser on Jan. 11, a week before session opening day, at Brickhouse at WCIT Architecture. The suggested contribution per person started at $500 and capped at $4,000.

The filings for the senators show tens of thousands of dollars recorded into their coffers on Jan. 11, 12 and 13 from dozens of donors including Patrick Sullivan of Oceanit, lobbyist Blake Oshiro (who at the time was Gov. Josh Green’s policy director), Luis Salaveria, Green’s director of the Department of Budget and Finance; Young Brothers, the Hawaii Association of Realtors PAC, Hawaii Pacific Health, the Ironworkers union, law firm Watanabe Ing, UH administrator Kalbert Young, and Mark Mugiishi of Hawaii Medical Services Association.

The new law does not prohibit legislators from accepting donations during session and many, including Dela Cruz and Agaran, reported donations coming in throughout the session.

Sen. Lynn DeCoite reported dozens of donations during session including from Bruce Coppa of Capital Consultants, Hawaiian Airlines PAC, lobbyist Ann Chung, Alexander & Baldwin CEO Chris Benjamin and the Plumbers & Pipefitters PAC Fund. DeCoite, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development and Tourism, reported $30,589 in receipts, most of it during session. She has $93,573 in cash.

New Laws Coming

Other legislators who reported significant contributions for Jan. 1 through June 30 include Sens. Jarrett Keohokalole ($45,896) and Joy San Buenaventura ($20,690), and Reps. Hashimoto ($21,650), Scott Nishimoto ($17,450), Linda Ichiyama ($16,897) and Lisa Kitagawa ($16,500).

But Sens. Kurt Fevella and Brenton Awa raised no money in 2023. The same goes for Reps. Sonny Ganaden, Daniel Holt, Jeanne Kapela, Bert Kobayashi, Lisa Marten, Kanani Souza and Adrian Tam. And some of those same reps and several others reported campaign finance deficits.

The only lawmaker that did not file a campaign finance report was Rep. Sean Quinlan. The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission said that Quinlan would receive a letter from the agency reminding him of monetary penalties for missing the deadline.

The campaign finance disclosures do not explain why donors gave what they gave. Beginning in 2025, however, a law passed this year will require each state legislator to include in their public financial interests disclosures the names of certain lobbyists “with whom the legislator has a relationship.”

Another new law, Act 128, prohibits lobbyist contributions and expenditures during session and shortly before and after. It went into effect June 23.

And Act 8, also taking effect in 2025, requires lobbyists to disclose what they are lobbying or commenting on including bill and resolution numbers “and, if applicable, budget cost or program identification number, or other similar identifier.”

What will not become law, though, is a bill that many supporters said could dramatically level the playing field in elections. Senate Bill 1543, which would establish a comprehensive system of public financing for all candidates seeking election to state and county public offices, was killed with little explanation in the waning days of the 2023 session. Tarnas and Rhoads have indicated that they will revisit the legislation next year.

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