Wednesday could be a seminal moment in Hawaii politics.

No, there are no major debates scheduled. Absentee mail voting has already been going on for a week. Monday is the first day of early walk-in voting at a handful of sites across the state. Election Day is still almost two weeks off. Candidate fundraising reports are due by midnight, but the last batch of those came out just a few weeks ago.

Wednesday’s real significance is that it’s the last day for noncandidate committees and corporations to file their fundraising and expenditure reports covering the first seven months of 2012. Those reports will offer the first glimpse into how much outside money is flowing into state and county races in the wake of a court ruling earlier this year that opened the floodgates for certain types of spending.

The filings to look for are those belonging to independent-expenditure-only committees. Only seven such groups had registered as of July 10, but they are the entities most directly unshackled by a federal court decision in March that allowed unlimited contributions and expenditures.

Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao told Civil Beat last week Hawaii’s independent-expenditure-only groups are akin to a “super PAC on a national level.”

“For the most part, we are under a permanent injunction that prohibits us from enforcing the $1,000 ceiling,” Izumi-Nitao said. “As long as they’ve registered with us, we’re not going to regulate them as far as the money coming in.”

The ruling in question, Yamada v. Weaver, is outlined as a “significant” court decision on the Campaign Spending Commission website. Civil Beat explained the impact of the ruling when it was handed down:

These groups can support or attack candidates through advertising, mailings and other means so long as they operate independently of the candidate. They can accept unlimited contributions and spend unlimited amounts. Groups cannot qualify if they make any direct contributions to candidates.

Who’s On The List?

Here’s the list of the seven registered groups as of July 10:

  • A Better Hawaii PAC
  • AiKea
  • Hawaii Solutions
  • Kauai Women’s Caucus
  • MADPAC Hawaii
  • Pacific Resource Partnership PAC
  • Sierra Club Hawaii PAC

As of Sunday, only one of those seven — Kauai Women’s Caucus — had filed its disclosure reports covering the period from Jan. 1 through July 27. The group raised and spent $0 during the period, and has only held over $196.50 in the bank.

The first name on the list, A Better Hawaii PAC, says in its organizational report that it exists to promote Ben Cayetano’s mayoral campaign, but the group has been largely silent this year.

No other groups identify a single candidate or ballot issue it’s focusing on.

PRP — A Case Study

The sixth name on the list is one of the key players in the hotly contested mayoral race this year.

The Pacific Resource Partnership has spent more than $1 million on television advertising, according to Civil Beat’s review of TV station records collectively known as “the public file.”

Izumi-Nitao said the filings due Wednesday for the seven groups will let the public “see how they’re taking money in and how they’re spending it,” but there are limits to the transparency.

That’s because of how PRP has structured two distinct ad campaigns.

The carpenters union group has promoted the rail project through an effort it’s calling “I Mua Rail.” (“I mua” means “move forward” in Hawaiian.) The other piece of PRP’s spending is the “Read Ben’s Record” campaign that’s attacked anti-rail mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano for his actions as governor.

PRP Executive Director John White said the “political” side of the operation — Read Ben’s Record — is funded from PRP’s own coffers. PRP itself is a labor-management partnership that draws its funding from 6,500 carpenters union members and the contractors that hire them. He said the money comes from the fringe benefit package negotiated by the union, and is supposed to promote job creation within the industry.

So the income side of the political action committee’s filing this week might be short and sweet, with only one funding source.

“Any expense or allocation we’ve made from PRP to a political activity has to be reported as if we were a candidate for office,” White said. “If anyone gives money to our political activities, that has to be disclosed. There is no group that is giving money — outside of the membership of PRP — to any political effort that we’re doing. If they were, we’d have to report it.”

So that’s one limit on the information we’ll be getting from PRP this week.

The other is that the filings also won’t show how much money PRP has taken in or spent on its I Mua Rail campaign — or where that money has come from or gone to. PRP maintains that I Mua Rail is nonpolitical in nature and thus not subject to the state’s campaign spending laws.

“I think the goal of I Mua Rail is to remind people of why they supported rail in the first place … to dispel some of the myths,” White said. “I Mua Rail is not a political activity. It is not on the ballot. We do not do electioneering.”

None of the I Mua Rail commercials mention a candidate by name or explicitly advocate for a vote for or against any candidate or ballot question. But the implicit impact of that pro-rail advocacy leaves a small needle to thread considering the unquestionably political nature of the debate on the project and its preeminence in the mayoral race.

“I Mua Rail could be any marketing effort that any group does to support any issue that they care about,” White said. “I think I Mua Rail should not even be in the same category as an independent expenditure PAC. It’s apples and oranges. It’s two separate types of activities and rules that govern what you can do.”

White said PRP had a website up and running and a door-to-door canvassing effort going long before Cayetano announced his candidacy.

“So I think that it’s unfair to say that I Mua Rail is a vehicle to influence the mayor’s race,” he said. “To say that I Mua Rail is an IE [independent expenditure] or to even hint at that is incorrect.

“I recognize that there hasn’t been an effort quite like this before,” White said. “We have a pretty decent grasp on what we can do and what we can’t.”

Campaign Spending Commission Busy

The Campaign Spending Commission is already up to its eyeballs in hundreds of filings from candidates and outside groups in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 11 primary. There are at least 80 PACs that aren’t considered independent-expenditure-only and are still limited in what they can take in and spend. Staffers aren’t going to be watching television and listening to the radio to see if otherwise mundane commercials cross the line into political speech.

Izumi-Nitao, the CSC’s executive director, said her staff is focused on compliance with campaign spending laws.

“I think if we see an ad out there and it’s clearly trying to influence the election of a certain candidate to office, we look to make sure the proper disclaimers [about who paid for the message] are there,” she said. “We are doing our best to monitor the traffic.”

Is she concerned about the corrupting influence of outside money in Hawaii politics?

“The bottom line is following the money,” she said. “Reporting and disclosure are undoubtedly in a very good place. On a national level, reporting and disclosure are alive and well.”

Does she feel the state needs to revisit campaign finance law in light of the court ruling in the Yamada case?

“I think once this election season is over, and even before then, I’m all ears how we can improve ourselves,” she said. “I have yet to figure out myself where we stand in the hierarchy of how this whole thing works.”

About the Author