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Sen. Rhoads ‘guardedly optimistic’ about Hawai‘i clean elections bill

HONOLULU — Prominent state Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Karl Rhoads (D-District 13) has put his weight behind a bill that would eliminate the need for campaign financing in Hawai‘i.

If passed, Senate Bill 1543 would allocate $30 million to a newly-formed public campaign financing fund, allowing candidates to avoid private funds entirely.

“It’s a pretty bold move,” Rhoads said. “I mean, it costs quite a bit of money — or it could, if a lot of people use it.”

Rhoads first introduced a similar public campaign financing bill during his time as Judiciary chair in the state House nearly a decade ago, although it ultimately failed.

However, believing recent events have increased support for such reforms, Rhoads announced in early January that he would introduce SB 1543 during this year’s legislative session.

“On the campaign finance and ethics side of things, it seemed like considering the troubles we’ve had — both at the Legislature, in the Honolulu Police Department, (Honolulu Department of) Planning and Permitting and prosecutor’s office — that maybe this would be a good year to try to minimize the influence of money,” he said.

There were a slew of corruption charges made against prominent officials in Hawai‘i last year.

In January 2022, three high-ranking Honolulu officials — former city managing director Roy Amemiya, ex-Honolulu police commissioner Max Sword and former corporation counsel Donna Leong, were indicted by the FBI on conspiracy charges, in connection to the payoff of former Honolulu Police Department Chief Louis Kealoha.

A month later, former state legislators J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges after an FBI investigation found they had illegally taken tens of thousands of dollars to promote or kill bills for the benefit of a wastewater company.

In June, former Honolulu prosecuting attorney Keith Kaneshiro was indicted on conspiracy charges after an FBI investigation alleged he was paid by businessman Dennis Mitsunaga to prosecute one of Mitsunaga’s former employees.

And in October, Honolulu’s former chief building inspector Wayne Inouye pleaded guilty to accepting more than $100,000 in bribes to expedite building permits.

In the wake of these scandals, Rhoads believes an overhaul of campaign financing in Hawai‘i is both wanted and needed.

“I think maybe people are ready for a more dramatic shift,” he said. “And this would be pretty dramatic.”

By attempting to provide an alternative to private funding, Rhoads hopes to limit the amount of outside influence in state and local politics.

“As an elected official or someone running for office, there are two sets of constituencies that you have to worry about,” he said.

“They overlap sometimes, but not a lot, usually — and that’s the people who actually vote for you, and then your donors. So, you have to keep both groups happy if you’re gonna keep winning, or if you’re going to win in the first place.”

To qualify for the program, candidates would need to receive $5 contributions from a certain number of people within their voting district. Candidates vying for higher-ranked seats require more donors to qualify for funds, but also receive more funds if they reach the contribution threshold.

For example, a candidate for the state Senate would need 125 contributions to receive $50,000 in funds — whereas a candidate for Kaua‘i County Council would only need 75 contributions to opt into the program, but would only receive $30,000 to spend on their campaign.

Candidates who successfully opt into the program would be unable to use or accept any private campaign donations.

“Then you don’t have to look over your shoulder at your donors — you just have to worry about your constituents,” Rhoads said. “And I think that might be appealing to people right now.”

By including this contribution threshold, Rhoads hopes to limit unfit candidates from receiving state funds.

“You want to weed out the wackies, the really nonviable candidates,” he said. “Getting 125 $5 contributions — I would say that’s not trivial, and then you still have to work to get it. But once you get it, you get $50,000. And then, (for) pretty much any House race in the state, you’re in it.”

SB 1543 unanimously passed both the state Senate Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Ways and Means, and is awaiting a final vote on the Senate floor. If that vote is successful, the bill would cross over to the House for consideration there.

While Rhoads expressed some confidence the bill will ultimately succeed, he emphasized that only time will tell.

“I’m sort of guardedly optimistic,” he said. “I think this is a good year for it to happen in terms of the way the political stars are aligned, but there’s no guarantees.”

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Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-245-0427 or jhealy@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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