About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Kristin Izumi-Nitao wants to make sure the state can properly administer proposals designed to clean up politics and encourage newcomers to run for office.

It’s an election year and the Campaign Spending Commission has important work to do in helping voters “watch the flow of money,” says its executive director. In fact, Kristin Izumi-Nitao thinks that may be more vital than ever at a time when all eyes are focused on Lahaina’s recovery and wildfire prevention.

In an interview with Civil Beat that has been edited for length and clarity, Kristin Izumi-Nitao also talks about the commission’s latest reform proposals under consideration by the Legislature, including one to increase public funding of campaigns.

With all the concerns about wildfires, plus housing issues in general, it seems like reform measures like those proposed by your commission may end up on the back burner this session. Are you concerned about that?

There’s no reason not to (talk about reform). It’s just that budgets are tight, it’s a concentrated period of time, and efforts have to be focused on the priorities that have been designated.

Campaign finance doesn’t necessarily square with that, but on the other hand there’s been enough discussion in the public about concerns of fraud. And it being an election year, I think attention will be on Maui. What’s happening over there? And what kind of money is coming in?

So to that extent, I just hope that voters are vigilant and watch what’s happening in a community that obviously requires a lot of assistance. We have to understand the relationships and the connections. And the best way to do that is to watch the flow of money.

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One of the reform issues that does seem to have some momentum going into this session is expanding public financing of campaigns. Your commission has tweaked its proposal for expanded but still partial funding, while Sen. Karl Rhoads is again pushing a $30 million plan that he considers full funding. Take us through what’s going on.

Well, I can back up. Our state constitution provides for partial public funding, right? Which we’ve had for a while. And this office has tried to submit multiple bills to enhance the present system, just for the cost of living, and they have never passed. This is the first time, with this bill, we will at least have a 2-for-1 match, so it increases it. It has an expenditure limit to address that budget pressure.

Partial funding may not satisfy everybody because you still can raise outside money, private money. That’s why some people believe full public funding could be more palatable.

Sen. Rhoads, he’s been great. We’ve had open dialogue with him. His numbers are real, because we are running them. You know, you have a good idea of how the system’s going to run (to qualify for public money under Rhoads’ bill, candidates would first have to collect a minimum number of small donations).

You can imagine raising $5 cash contributions from 200 people and you get something like $50,000. With that type of structure we need more resources because we’ve got to verify that these $5 cash contributions are legit. It’s a huge fiduciary duty, right? That money that’s being given is taxpayer money.

I’ve also made it known that if his bill gets more traction, I think it would be extremely helpful to the public or comforting, if you will, to build in a piece where there’s money to hire a third-party auditor after the election.

You can only speculate who’s going to run and who can qualify for running for office. I’ve heard raising 200 $5 cash contributions is difficult. I just feel like the kind of money you’re going to get in return for that is huge.

Izumi-Nitao was a member of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct that met in 2022 and made numerous recommendations for government reform. (Screenshot/2022)

Is it fair to say the Campaign Spending Commission is open to either approach — expanding partial funding or going with full funding?

We’re not opposed to either approach. I guess the lower-hanging fruit is partial public funding because it’s in existence. There’s a trust fund to manage that. We know exactly how to administer that. And all we’re trying to do with our bill is to enhance it.

Full public funding is not new to this office. We did a pilot program, the Hawaii County Council comprehensive public funding. It was supposed to run three elections, but it ran out of money after year two. There was a $3 million or $3.5 million ceiling on it, and we didn’t have the money to run it the third year.

“I have no doubt it will attract a lot more people, which is its intention. But with that comes a very steep learning curve.”

At this point it’s a policy question for the Legislature and the governor. We will administer it, but of course, we want to do it properly. We just want to make sure we have the proper resources to do what we’re supposed to do.

There’s only $1.9 million in the trust fund right now. That does nothing to run a full public funding program.

These kinds of programs will fuel more interest with candidates, particularly some people who’ve never run before. I have no doubt it will attract a lot more people, which is its intention. But with that comes a very steep learning curve, because we have a full electronic filing system. So people need to know how to file these reports.

When you have well-intentioned people, they need to be informed and educated as to the rules. And there are some who are going to wing it anyway. How many times have we fined people and they said, “We didn’t know. It was it was a mistake. No, I didn’t take the training. No, I didn’t read the guidebook.”

We do our best to try to help first-timers, but it’s met sometimes with resistance. I have some great people who work here who are really trying to provide that education, whether it be on the phone or with training or through our guidebooks and manuals that are available on our website. We just don’t have the kind of resources to do enforcement 100%.

It seems like either of these proposals has the potential to increase the number of candidates — and the commission’s workload.

Yes, either measure could have that result. And I think it’s exciting for sure. We are an aging population, right? We want to see younger generations step up.

I just would like to do it with accountability and do it the right way.

Even with its current responsibilities, does the Campaign Spending Commission have enough staff and resources to do the job?

Since 1973, we have never had a personnel increase. This was the first year we went in for more positions — two of them. It was something like a $200,000 ask and it did not make the executive budget.

But we are still openly talking with legislators about the fact that the commission really requires more positions to be able to manage the multitude of committees that are now registered with us. It’s almost four times the amount since I’ve started. And unless they terminate, they have to continue to file in an election year at least four reports, sometimes six, and then in a non-election year at least two.

“We fine all the time and that’s a deterrent for some, but not a deterrent for all.”

So you can imagine that kind of regulation. It requires more than just the five people we have.

This is an office that has enforcement duties but we don’t have an investigator. We’ve tried to manage with what we’ve got. Compliance is more coveted obviously than enforcement. So the accountability piece is there and it’s hard to do when you don’t have enough staff.

Another of the commission’s bills that is back this session would prohibit campaign contributions from the officers and immediate family members of government contractors and grantees for the duration of their state or county contracts. Are these types of contributions a big problem right now?

You have some contractors out there who understand the law. So their business, their organization, their company won’t contribute during the length of their contract, but their officers and their immediate family members do give. So if you have contribution limits of $2,000, $4,000, $6,000 apiece, while the company cannot give, a lot of money is still being given. And so this is trying to close that a little bit.

The revised version has deleted references to “owners” and “employees.” Why is that?

I think we agreed it was a little too broad. The question came up, what is an owner? Are we going to create our own definition of owner? We didn’t want to get into the weeds on some of that stuff, and we’re just trying to hit decision-makers because we feel that that is a loophole that might allow pay to play.

I know people have questioned whether it’s constitutional, and certainly that’s for the attorney general to decide. But I think our response to that is really this is only for the life of a contract. It’s not a full ban. It’s just if your business is receiving a contract and getting state or county money or a grant, then you should not be then giving money.

And you know, there are actually some states that have a further ban than that, which is during the time when you’re bidding for government contracts you can’t be giving. So I think we’re trying to be realistic, because we want to make sure it’s operable and it’s practical. Enforceable.

The House of Representatives opens the legislative session Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Legislators would be prohibited from soliciting or accepting contributions during a session under one of the proposals from the Campaign Spending Commission. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

Another one of the commission bills would prohibit elected officials from accepting campaign contributions during legislative sessions. Why does the commission think that’s a good idea?

This bill was submitted last session, and what came out of it is a bill that prohibits elected officials from holding a fundraiser during session. So the event is prohibited, but what about the acceptance and solicitation during sessions? I guess you could deem that to be a loophole. 

Sen. Rhoads says this is unfair to incumbents. How do you respond to that?

That’s a hard question to answer. I can see his point on that.

The intent behind it is not to be unfair to elected officials. It was meant to address that there could be potential problems. It’s an attempt to shut down some of those areas that could be taken advantage of. I understand this is potentially a rarity, but it’s there and we had to deal with it.

You were a member of the special Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, the so-called Foley Commission, that was formed in the aftermath of several public scandals including the bribery convictions of two former legislators. What do you think are the most important reform measures that haven’t yet passed the Legislature?

Well, I personally think that they include our partial public funding bill and extending our pay-to-play bill regarding contributions from government contractor and grantees. I think there’s a really good balance with those two if you want reform.

And certainly if Sen. Rhoads gets his full public funding bill passed, that’s going to be historic.

In terms of the Foley Commission proposals last session, I was very pleased that the criminal law bill (House Bill 710) passed. That’s going to really equip the prosecutors and law enforcement to do what they couldn’t in the situation they were given (the bribery cases). Hence, it had to be turned over to the federal law enforcement. So now they’ve got the tools.

I really feel that if you want some deterrence, actual deterrence, that may have to come with the criminal enhancements. See, we fine all the time and that’s a deterrent for some, but not a deterrent for all.

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

Lots of things won't get done this session "because Lahaina". Unfortunate.

gronk · 1 month ago

The initial proposal of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct was to prohibit fundraisers and the solicitation and acceptance of funds by legislators and candidates for the legislature (not all state and county elected officials) during legislative sessions.This would seem to address Senator Rhoads reported concerns of unfairness to incumbents and narrow the scope of the prohibition as originally proposed. Maybe this is worth considering.

judgefoley · 1 month ago

In actuality, the current system is unfair to non-incumbents. The incumbents get to spend government money to send out campaign brochures disguised as so-called informational flyers detailing their accomplishments in office. They also get to hold campaign rallies disguised as "Informational" coffee hours/town hall meetings. Lastly, by the fact they hold office they are also able to put forth campaign messages disguised as public media releases to again "Inform" the public. Until we get that combination of publicly financed campaigns and non-partisan elections nothing will change and the incumbents will continue to rule.

TheAdvocate · 1 month ago

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