Election funding bill raises some concerns as measure passes first reading in Hawaii Senate

A bill that would create a public funding program for state House elections is getting mixed reviews.

Rep. Cindy Evans, D-Kohala, North Kona, voted in favor of House Bill 2533 on Tuesday, with reservations.

“I had some concerns regarding the bill. First, it’s a bill just for representatives. Why did they do the representatives and not the Senate?” she said.

That’s one reason Rep. Bob McDermott of Oahu voted against the legislation.

“It targets representatives, not the senate or governor or any of the bigger offices,” he said. “If it was across the board and made for an even playing field for everybody, and that was the goal, I could support something like that, but that’s living in fantasy land and you’re never going to get there.”

Noelie Rodriguez, a professor of sociology at Hawaii Community College, said the bill is a step in the right direction.

“I think if we can have it on the state representatives this year that would be a victory. It would be successful and eventually we’d work it through the senate,” she said.

She said it’s in the public’s interest to support legislation such as HB 2533.

“It’s critical that we start getting corporate money and money of the very wealthy out of our government because we want a government that helps the people, not one that represents the wealthy or acts on behalf of corporate interest,” she said.

Under the bill, candidates could collect signatures, along with $5 donations, from voters in their districts, in exchange for a sum of money from the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which is paid by taxpayers through a voluntary check-off on state income tax forms. Politicians then would use those funds to finance their campaigns.

“This bill will make it so there’s enough money for politicians to run without becoming beholden to their campaign funders,” Rodriguez said. “It would make it so they can’t take a significant amount of money for the funding. Basically, it’s a bill to stop the corruption of government by big money and big corporate interest.”

Such a program went into effect on the Big Island in 2010.

The pilot program was only for Hawaii County Council candidates through the 2014 election. Despite support from politicians and voters, the program ended after its bank account fell below the $3.5 million threshold mandated by state law.

Evans said funding for the program was also one of her concerns.

“Secondly, if you have a limited appropriation amount in the fund for a program like this what happens when the funds run out and you have people applying for the money and qualifying for it and you don’t have the money?” she said. “Third, is the timing of this during the election. So if they’re applying for matching funds, if you don’t have the staff and the check to turn money around quickly then it in fact impacts the election. If we’re not supporting enough staff to process payments, then it’s flawed from the beginning.”

McDermott said he voted against the bill because he doesn’t think “people should be forced to support candidates with their tax dollars that they fundamentally disagree with.”

“Let people run on their ideas, let them raise their own money and work hard and do it,” McDermott added.

The bill passed its first reading in the state Senate Thursday and was referred to the Senate’s Judiciary and Labor and Ways and Means committees.

Email Megan Moseley at mmoseley@hawaiitribune-herald.com.