Hawaii Advances Public Financing Bill To Fix Outdated System

Hawaii State Capitol Building Honolulu Oahu
Hawaii State Capitol Building Honolulu Oahu

WASHINGTON -- After letting its public campaign financing system become obsolete, Hawaii is finally moving forward with a bill to bring the 30-year-old program up to date.

The legislation, H.B. 1481, would increase the amount available to candidates running for the state House of Representatives and require those participating in elections to raise more money from smaller donors to qualify.

"I'm really excited about this new bill that's moving," said Rep. Della Au Belatti, a Democratic representative from the state's 25th district and a primary sponsor of the bill.

Hawaii's possible update to its public financing system comes as a number of states move to advance campaign finance reforms, and after some of the most expensive and least transparent elections in recent history. In Montana, new disclosure legislation is moving forward, and New York lawmakers are pushing to enact a comprehensive public financing system there.

Under Hawaii's legislation, candidates would be required under to collect signatures, along with contributions of $5, from 250 registered voters within their districts in order to qualify for public funds. That financing would be determined through a formula that uses the average amount raised by House candidates in the previous election, excluding the three most expensive and three least expensive races -- somewhere between $30,400 and $30,500 based on 2012 numbers.

The new scheme would cost the state a maximum of approximately $3 million, if two candidates used the system in every single House district.

Supporters of the bill view Hawaii's current public campaign finance system, which has been in place since 1978, as woefully inadequate. Kory Payne, executive director of the nonprofit Voter Owned Hawaii, noted that only two of the 100 candidates in the 2012 election used public funds.

"What we want to do is basically overhaul the program and make sure candidates get a competitive amount of money to run their races with," Payne said.

One of those two 2012 candidates to use public financing, 24-year-old Kaniela Ing, a Democrat now representing the 11th District, used the system to beat two better-known candidates in a primary race. Ing said the public funds, while barely sufficient, allowed him to concentrate on introducing himself to the community, rather than spending time at fundraisers.

"I wanted to -- if I was going to win -- win in a way that wasn't just immersing myself, that wasn't just sucking myself into the system that already exists that we're not happy with," Ing said of private election donations. "So I figured this was the best way to give the public a greater voice."

Ing and other supporters of campaign finance reform in Hawaii hope providing a more competitive amount of money for publicly financed campaigns will help attract a wider variety of candidates. They also believe, like Ing, that candidates will be able to spend less time fundraising and more time on legislative work and constituent services.

"Hopefully, you can make your decisions less fettered by worrying about what your donors might think about what you do," said state Rep. Karl Rhoads, a Democrat and a key supporter of the legislation as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"It's a good way to amplify the smaller donors' voice and it requires candidates to really, kind of, get into the community and connect with the voters," said Belatti, the bill's sponsor.

Supporters expect the legislation to succeed. It passed the state House on March 5 with only three votes against and has passed two readings in the Senate. It passed out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee on March 28 with only one opposing vote and two abstentions.

2012 Campaign Promises