Public elections financing pilot program halted for lack of funds

A program aimed at leveling the playing field by providing public funding for Hawaii County Council candidates will not continue next year, after the program’s bank account dipped below the $3.5 million threshold set by state law.

The pilot program, which began in 2010 only for Hawaii County and was to continue through the 2014 election, was generally considered a success in bringing new blood into council races. It was also supported in recent voter polls, an advocate said.

Last year, a majority of winning council members benefited from public campaign financing. More significantly, in every County Council race where at least one publicly financed candidate entered, that candidate won. All three publicly funded candidates who failed in their quest to seek office lost to other publicly funded candidates.

The program took a maximum of $300,000 from the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which is paid by taxpayers through a voluntary check-off on state income tax forms, and distributed it on a first-come, first-served basis to County Council candidates. Candidates accepting funds were not allowed to accept other contributions.

Hawaii County candidates received a total of $215,344 last year, with individuals receiving between $11,600 and $48,893, based on a formula depending on how much money candidates raised in the two prior elections.

Several freshmen council members say they couldn’t have run without the financial boost.

“That program gave me the opportunity. I’d be happy for any newcomer to come up and take advantage of that fund,” said Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan. “Now it benefits the incumbent. This is the people’s seat. The problem shouldn’t be funding.”

Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, who won a newly created council district when no one else entered the race, didn’t take public funding but said the program has value for those who need it.

“It’s a great opportunity for everybody in our county to be able to participate,” Kanuha said. “I’m disappointed.”

The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission will make an official determination Sept. 1 that there is insufficient money to continue the program under state law. Until that time, winning candidates who received public funding in 2012 will not be allowed to receive campaign contributions from other sources.

The fund currently holds less than $3.1 million, Gary Kam, the commission’s general counsel, said Wednesday.

“When we went to the Legislature this year, there was a bill that would have enhanced the fund that we supported,” Kam said. “We told them without funding, it was unlikely to continue.”

That bill, as well as another bill supported by Voter Owned Hawaii that would have brought public funding to state House candidates statewide, did not make it through the session.

There is a partial public funding program that’s been in place since 1978 that provides significantly less money but allows candidates to also collect private funding, Kam said. The funding is based on the number of registered voters in the district.

Last year 22 candidates collected a total of $145,696, with individual candidates getting between $1,500 and $22,259, depending on the race.

In the Hawaii County pilot program, candidates had to be certified and collect $5 and verified signatures from 200 registered voters within their districts, and agree not to take campaign contributions from other sources.

Kory Payne, executive director of Voter Owned Hawaii, said his group will be concentrating on bills creating public funding for state House and possibly Senate seats, rather than the Hawaii County program. But if a bill comes forward on that issue, he would definitely support it, he said.

“What is very clear is there are legislators in Honolulu who are not proactively working to improve this program,” Payne said.