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Hawai‘i Legislature slashes nearly all funding for proposed clean elections program

LIHU‘E — A lot can change in the blink of an eye.

In a matter of days, Senate Bill 1543 — a bill to promote clean elections through public campaign financing — was transformed from a radical shift in Hawai‘i’s politics to a one-year pilot program to a dead bill with no explanation as to why it died.

Originally set to create a $30 million ongoing opt-in system for state and local electoral candidates to receive full public financing for campaigns beginning in 2026, a series of changes made between Wednesday and Friday evenings left SB 1543 nearly unrecognizable from its original version before the proposal was quietly killed.

The bill first began to unravel Wednesday afternoon, when conferee chairs Sen. Karl Rhoads (D-District 13) and Rep. David Tarnas (D-District 8) announced during a conference committee meeting that some of the most substantial aspects of the bill would be cut.

Under this proposal, the program’s effective date would have been pushed back two years to the 2028 electoral cycle and would sunset in 2029, relegating it to a one-time pilot program. Additionally, the conferees agreed to lower the program’s required funds to $15 million — although only $7.5 million would be given upfront, meaning legislators would have had to allocate the other half prior to the bill’s 2027 effective date to avoid canceling the program.

Then on Thursday, the conferee chairs announced that the Senate Committee on Ways and Means had slashed the program’s upfront funding from $7.5 million to $700,000 — less than 10 percent of its required funds.

Notably, WAM Chair Donovan Dela Cruz (D-District 17) holds the largest campaign war chest in Hawai‘i’s Legislature, with nearly $1 million in his campaign account.

Tarnas said during the Thursday conference committee
meeting that the House would “reluctantly” accept the changes, describing the hollowed bill as a “first step” and a “statement” against government corruption.

“I know the advocates are out there saying, ‘We’ve got to fund the whole thing in order to make it happen,’ but I think we’ve got to take an incremental step forward to make a statement that this is something that we believe is important,” he said.

The conferees would never get the chance to vote on SB 1543, though, even in its scaled-down form. The bill’s Friday deadline came and went without a conference committee vote, and SB 1543 died with no mention as to why.

While Tarnas announced hours prior that neither the Senate Ways and Means nor the House Finance committees had approved the bill yet — necessary steps for the bill to reach a conferee vote — it was not made immediately clear whether this was the reason for the conferees’ inaction Friday evening.

Following SB 1543’s quiet death, government reform advocates expressed frustration over the bill’s failure to pass.

“It’s incredibly disappointing, and really shameful,” said Evan Weber, co-founder of progressive super PAC (political action committee) Our Hawai‘i.

Weber — who had first announced the bill alongside Rhodes in early January — added that while he had hoped for a better outcome, SB 1543’s demise did not come as a surprise.

“We’ve seen this kind of thing happen time and time again on popular issues that have the support of the people but not the status quo,” he continued. “And this was one of those bills that would kind of strike at the heart of the whole system that creates that dynamic in the first place. So we suspected that it might get yanked by folks in leadership at the last minute.”

While all bills not passed this legislative session will carry over to the 2024 session, it is rare for carryover bills to regain momentum.

Still, Weber expressed strong optimism over the future of public campaign financing in Hawai‘i, adding that Our Hawai‘i and its associates would continue to push for reform.

“Just because it didn’t pass this year does not mean that we have given up,” he said. “We’re going to let folks know that the people in power killed it, and try to elect more folks who will champion it next session as we head toward 2024 … and I have no doubt that whether it’s 2024 or 2025, this legislation will become the law of the land.”


Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or
Source: The Garden Island

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