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Legislators attempt to revive election reform

KAILUA-KONA, Hawai‘i — State legislators announced plans to reintroduce a bill calling for full public financing of elections in Hawai‘i.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Karl Rhoads held an educational panel at the Hawaii Capitol on Wednesday to speak about his intention to bring the bill back to the Legislature during the upcoming session.

The panel included moderator Colin Moore of the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization, House sponsor Rep. Jeanne Kapela, Maui County Council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and Common Cause HI Program Director Camron Hurt.

Senate Bill 1543 was introduced in 2023 to establish a comprehensive system of public financing for all candidates seeking election to state and county public offices.

The final version of the bill stated in part “the common belief is that the current campaign finance system used in Hawai‘i (and most other states) unfairly favors a small handful of wealthy donors who use their donations to buy access to candidates and elected officials.

“Comprehensive, publicly funded campaign programs are intended to improve the process by allowing candidates to compete without reliance on private funds and also allowing elected officials to make decisions without the influence, or appearance of influence, of private individuals, lobbyists, political parties, political action committees, unions, corporations and other entities.”

The 2023 bill was widely popular. Different drafts of the bill collectively received more than 900 pages of public testimony, mainly in support of the measure. However, after passing both chambers of the Legislature, the bill died at the last minute during the conference committee on the last day of the session.

Rhoads said he is introducing a new and improved version of the legislation, stressing its importance.

“When you’re running for office, there are two groups of people you have to worry about: your voters and your donors. And donors don’t always line up with and represent the voters, especially in poorer districts. This bill makes it so you don’t have to worry about some arbitrary group of donors and just focus on the people in your district,” he said.

Kapela, of West Hawai‘i, will be introducing the companion bill in the House.

“Representation matters. When we remove the need for candidates to cater to the wealthy and well-connected, we change who can win elections,” she said in a statement.

“This means more women in office. More Native Hawaiians. More people from working class backgrounds. When we have clean elections, we can level the playing field for who can run and win, and that’s when we’ll have a legislative body that truly represents the people, not corporate special interests.”

Rawlins-Fernandez said the wildfire tragedy on Maui and the events that followed have made the need for good government free from corruption or the influence of special interests more clear than ever.

“What we have heard from Lahaina is that they want the community to be centered in the decisions that happen regarding what comes next,” she said at the panel discussion.

“Our current system makes that harder, because moneyed-interests surround decision makers and are often put before community needs. We need a truly representative democracy, and that’s what this legislation would accomplish. The fires in Maui make this legislation more urgent, not less. I wish it had passed last year, but it absolutely needs to pass this year.”

Our Hawai‘i, a grassroots movement aiming to take big money out of politics, indicates candidates who outspend their opponent win at a 91 percent rate, and candidates spend much of their time fundraising instead of engaging voters on the issues.

The average state House winner spends over $40,000, $24,000 more than their opponent. Over half of campaign donations last election came from just 980 donors, who gave at least $6,000 each.

The Clean Elections Hawai‘i Coalition stated last year’s bill gained political support from former Govs. Abercrombie and Waihe’e, former Mayors Caldwell, Kim and Yukimura, bipartisan lawmakers, the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, leading ethics and elections officials, and more.

“We’re tasked with making sure that we keep improving on this experiment in democracy. We need to ensure that the people with the deepest pockets are not the loudest people in the room,” said Hurt, who is a core member of The Clean Elections Hawai‘i Coalition.

The Clean Elections Hawai‘i Coalition represents dozens of leading local organizations coordinating to advance a pro-democracy agenda in the islands and help end the corrupting influence of big money on our politics. For more information, contact team@cleanelectionshawaii.org.
Source: The Garden Island

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