Advocates rally for stalled 'clean elections' bill

Mar. 19—More than a dozen advocates from the Clean Elections Hawaii Coalition gathered Monday at the state Capitol rotunda to urge legislators to reconsider implementing a comprehensive public financing program for Hawaii's political candidates, commonly referred to as "clean elections."

More than a dozen advocates from the Clean Elections Hawaii Coalition gathered Monday at the state Capitol rotunda to urge legislators to reconsider implementing a comprehensive public financing program for Hawaii's political candidates, commonly referred to as "clean elections."

Organizations including the Hawaii Workers Center, Indivisible Hawaii and Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action advocated for keeping alive Senate Bill 2381 after state Rep. David Tarnas—chair of the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs—deferred it last week.

SB 2381 would establish full public financing for political candidates starting in 2028, which supporters say could lead to a new generation of Hawaii officials at all levels of county, state and Office of Hawaiian Affairs elections because more candidates could be attracted to advocating for constituents' concerns over fundraising, reducing reliance on donors' priorities.

A House version of the bill—HB 2321—had been endorsed by House Speaker Scott Saiki, giving supporters hope that it would pass this session and go into effect in 2028, which proponents argue would help reduce the temptation for political corruption.

The House bill also never got a hearing in the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs or House Finance Committee.

Both bills would have laid the groundwork for publicly financed campaigns by providing the same amount of public financing for each candidate in the same races—similar to programs in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and New Mexico, according to the bills.

Candidates for the same race would receive identical amounts of state funds to run for any elected office.

The highest amount would be for candidates for governor : $1.675 million for the primary election and $825, 000 in the general, for a total of $2.5 million.

The lowest would be for County Council seats in "a county with a population of less than one hundred fifty thousand—$20, 100 in the primary, $9, 900 in the general, for a maximum of $30, 000, " according to the bills.

Proponents of "clean government " have been demanding election and campaign spending reform following 31 recommendations proposed by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct after the February 2022 guilty pleas of disgraced former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and former Rep. Ty J.K. Cullen.

They pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting bribes to support and kill legislation on behalf of Milton J. Choy, owner and manager of a company called H2O Process Systems.

In 2020, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his then-wife, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kea ­loha, were convicted of corruption in federal court.

Former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Rowena Akana has had her $23, 000 fine upheld by the state Intermediate Court of Appeals for violations of the state ethics code, a ruling she plans to appeal.

Jury selection began last week for the U.S. District Court trial of former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, businessman Dennis Mitsunaga and others on federal charges that they conspired to bribe Kaneshiro with campaign contributions to prosecute a former Mitsunaga employee.

At the state Capitol on Monday, Sergio Alcubilla, executive director of the Hawaii Workers Center, told the Hono ­lulu Star-Advertiser that he wants to level the playing field for "everyday " workers in Hawaii who need their concerns heard by elected officials of every level of county and state government.

"A lot of times, everyday workers get drawn out by the voices of corporate interests and people with deep pockets when it comes to having access to elected officials, " he said.

Alcubilla hopes Monday's rally inspires the public to fight to "make our democracy more inclusive and more participatory. And if there's still a way for Speaker Saiki to save this bill—he was the one that sponsored it—we want him to do something."

Alcubilla said legislators "don't have the boldness and courage to pass something like this, to make a change."

The Campaign Spending Commission submitted written testimony about SB 2381 but was "extremely disappointed " to see that the amended version eliminated funding to include "the hiring of additional commission personnel."

"From the very beginning, we have made it abundantly clear that a program of this magnitude requires funding and resources, " the commission wrote.

Lisa Gibson, group leader of Indivisible Hawaii, said she was "angry and extremely disappointed " that SB 2381 was deferred and hopes it gets rejuvenated so legislators "fix the problems with it and pass it."

"That's why we're here today, " Gibson said Monday. "Having said that, it's our kuleana to stand up and hold our elected officials accountable. There's responsibility on both sides."

Clean Elections Hawaii said in a news release that legislators "still have multiple chances to do the right thing by democracy and pass this legislation."

It called the current system a "pay-to-play campaign finance system that fosters a culture of corruption in our politics."

Of the 1, 008 registered voters across the state surveyed by Clean Elections Hawaii, 68 % of them support passing a law to create a clean-elections program, and 11 % are opposed.

Some 78 % of respondents said that "recent public corruption scandals have negatively impacted my trust in our state government, " and 79 % are concerned—50 % greatly and 29 % moderately—about the financial transparency of candidates for office.