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‘Clean elections’ bill has widespread support

HILO, Hawai‘i — A proposal to publicly finance Hawai‘i election campaigns is riding a wave of public support through the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 2381 is a so-called “clean elections” bill that would establish a system for candidates in state and county public elections to be eligible for a certain amount of public financing, beginning in 2028.

According to the measure, candidates for various public offices would receive a certain amount of funding for their primary and general election campaigns. The amount received would be conditional upon which office they are running for: a gubernatorial candidate would receive $2.5 million between the primary and general elections, while a state Senate candidate would receive $100,000.

A Big Island mayoral candidate could expect $360,000 in funding, while a Hawai‘i County Council candidate would receive $20,000.

In total, the pool of funds available for candidates would be at least $30 million.

Candidates could qualify for these funds by filing a declaration of intent with the state Campaign Spending Commission and only accept a limited amount of funding during their campaign.

Under those terms, a candidate would only be allowed to accept up to 5 percent of their total allotment — or $5,000, whichever amount is greater — as seed money, and only before filing their declaration of intent with the state.

In order to qualify for public funds, candidates also would need to raise a certain number of $5 qualifying contributions, which would feed back into the funding pool.

The amount of those required contributions are again scaled based on the candidate’s office, with a gubernatorial candidate required to provide 6,250 $5 contributions ($31,250 in total), while a Big Island mayoral
candidate would be on the hook for 100 contributions ($500).

Gary Kam, general counsel for the Campaign Spending Commission, said the scaling roughly mirrors a 2010 pilot program implemented on the Big Island. That initiative, called the Hawai‘i County Council Comprehensive Public Funding Pilot Project, granted qualifying candidates — in this case, only County Council candidates — funding based on the average of the campaign funds spent by the last two candidates who won that seat.

“I would say (the 2010 program) definitely attracted more candidates than our current partial public funding does,” Kam said.

Kam said he believes the scale used in SB 2381 is based on campaign spending reports from 2020 through 2022, noting that data from 2023 was not available when the commission consulted with lawmakers on the measure.

The bill already has passed through one Senate committee with a unanimous favorable vote, receiving hundreds of pages of testimony in support of the proposal in the process, with many expressing that electoral politics have become dominated by the wealthy and are disconnected from the will of the people.

“When donors who profit by displacing local people are no longer needed to win an election, we can expect to see a shift toward compassionate, equitable, and cost-effective housing policy,” wrote Brandee Menino, CEO of HOPE Services Hawai‘i.

Menino’s letter also quoted Ambureen Rana, a state representative of Maine, which has had its own comprehensive public campaign financing program for years.

“I was publicly financed, and it’s the only way it was possible for me to run, as a working class person,” wrote Rana. “It goes a long way in removing barriers to allow young people to run for office, and people of color. As a 28 year old, first generation American, this made it possible for me.”

“We’re supportive of the intention of the bill,” Kam said. “But if you increase the amount of people receiving public funding, we’re going to need more manpower. Right now, the bill only has provisions to add two temporary employees.”

The Senate Committee on Ways and Means unanimously approved SB 2381, with amendments, on Tuesday.

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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