During his Feb. 21 “Focus Green” lecture at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Robert Kennedy Jr. said campaign reform is one way we can help the environment. “Teddy Roosevelt said that America would never be destroyed by a foreign power but he warned that our political institutions, our democratic institutions, would be subverted by malefactors of great wealth, who would erode them from within,” Kennedy said. Spoken a century ago by one of America’s greatest conservationists, Roosevelt’s astute observations reflect our political reality today.
In fact, Hawai`i voters apparently feel corruption is as much a part of campaigns as sign waving and vague promises. A 2004 statewide survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) revealed 81 percent of state voters agree that politicians become obligated to campaign donors and campaign contributions influence policies supported by elected officials. A further 82 percent think changes are needed when it comes to the way election campaigns are financed in the state.
Richard S. Miller, professor of law emeritus at the University of Hawai`i, believes the state is especially vulnerable to the economic and financial influence and control of wealthy businesses. Through his career teaching law at the William S. Richardson School of Law at U.H. Manoa, and his involvement with the legislative process, Miller has seen the corruption first-hand. “Our geographical isolation from the rest of the nation puts us at the mercy of the large companies who control the market because of lack of competition,” he said.
Miller believes Hawai`i voters have lost faith in the political system. “Hawai`i needs a public campaign funding bill that will allow candidates for political office to finance their campaigns without donations from powerful businesses,” he said.
Voter Owned Hawai`i is working to pass such legislation. Their “Clean Elections” companion bills—HB661 and SB 1068—provide a comprehensive public funding option for political campaigns throughout the state. “Our bill would have huge impacts on Hawai`i politics,” said Kory Payne, a community organizer for Voter Owned Hawai`i.
The bill will give political candidates running in county council races the opportunity to qualify for full public funding, which should end the candidates’ reliance on special interest campaign cash. Instead of spending countless hours wheeling and dealing for campaign contributions, candidates can spend time learning which issues are actually important to their constituents.
If elected, they can consider legislation based on merits without worrying whether they are pleasing special interest lobbyists and wealthy donors. “Clean Elections is proven reform that puts voters in control of elections,” Payne said.
Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Vermont, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon all have comprehensive public campaign programs. Since passing Clean Election legislation, these areas are seeing record numbers of voters returning to the polls. For Hawai`i—the state with the lowest voter participation in the United States—this would be a welcome change.
Full public campaign funding is also breaking down financial barriers that historically kept woman and minorities from entering politics because many cannot financially compete in the “pay-to-play” political system. Eventually, as in Arizona, Voter Owned Hawai`i wants political candidates in all races to have the access to the fund.
Though Hawai`i currently has a Partial Public Funding system, it does not effectively allow candidates to compete with privately funded candidates. “The Clean Elections option offers candidates enough funds to actually win campaigns,” Payne said.
The amount a county council candidate will receive in 2008 will be determined by averaging what it cost to win a council race in 2004 and 2006. If a publicly funded candidate is being outspent by privately funded candidates, they can receive “equalizing funds” that will level the playing field.
In order to qualify for the full campaign funding, candidates must collect 200 qualifying contributions of $5 from registered voters in their districts. Once a candidate qualifies, they cannot accept money from private donors and their campaign spending is strictly regulated, documented and available for public scrutiny.
Money for the program will come not from taxes, but the Hawai`i Election Fund, which currently holds more than $5 million, or from the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund, which generates over $8 million per year for the state.
Maui Sierra Club chairman Lance Holter believes any bill that starts the discussion on campaign finance reform is important and should be encouraged.
“A candidate who could honestly say they took no money from big corporations would have a great political advantage,” he said. “Imagine if politicians didn’t have to spend their valuable time raising money but could focus on the public trust instead. Wow, would we get some things accomplished.”
For more information on Voter Owned Hawai`i’s 2007 legislation, visit voterownedhawaii.org. MTW