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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, March 27, 2001

It's time someone ends endless money chase

Campaign finance regulation is just about the toughest nut for any legislative body to crack.

It doesn't matter whether it is the U.S. Congress or the local legislature. Somehow, when it comes to writing laws designed to regulate themselves, lawmakers simply cannot find just the right solution.

So, more often than not, they end up doing little or nothing.

That is the case, sadly, in the Hawai'i Legislature, where a series of fairly sweeping campaign spending bills died quietly just before the weekend.

The measures ranged from the far-reaching (creating a test case of a completely publicly financed election) through the more modest (banning corporate and union contributions or limiting contributions from government contractors).

As reported by Capitol Bureau staffers Kevin Dayton and Lynda Arakawa, the bills failed to make it past committees headed by veterans who are formidable fund-raisers under the current system.

We'd be the first to acknowledge that being a good campaign fund-raiser does not imply that a person is a bad or tainted lawmaker. In fact, the opposite could be argued: Those who do the best at fund-raising do so in part because they are popular, expert, valuable legislators who earn and deserve strong support.

And it is equally true that not every campaign spending "reform" bill deserves to be approved, just because someone came up with an idea.

But it is unmistakable that those who had questions about this year's slate of proposals are comfortable with and successful in the system as it now stands. Why rush to change it?

The simple answer is that campaign fund-raising inevitably taints both giver and recipient; it creates the image that someone is buying influence or access. It allows critics to imply that legislation is being written on the basis of who has put the most money into an incumbent's treasury.

In short, it shatters confidence in the system. It makes cynics out of voters and constituents who should believe in their elected representatives.

And privately, most lawmakers will admit they hate the process of going hat-in-hand to their constituents and interest groups every two or four years simply to raise the cash they feel is needed to get elected.

At one level, the best way to control and moderate the money chase is full disclosure. That is, let people raise and spend what they will, but force full and complete disclosure so voters can see the money coming and going.

In this regard, the state Campaign Spending Commission has been much more vigorous of late, using required disclosures to go after candidates who have managed to run afoul of our rather permissive laws. And if nothing else, lawmakers could have beefed up the disclosure process by requiring more timely reporting and easier electronic access to campaign spending records.

But beyond disclosure, there were a few reform ideas this year that just made plain good sense. One would have banned contributions from organized labor and businesses, a restriction already in place at the federal level.

This modest reform levels the playing field somewhat between individual contributors and organized groups.

Another would ban contributions from active government nonbid contractors, a reform that would be more than welcome by the contractors.

But both proposals died, as well as the experiment in full public funding.

It is time for our legislators to recognize that the public is increasingly cynical and disenchanted with politics. For the sake of their own reputation as well as for the sake of the political process, they must begin the process of reform.

It simply doesn't wash to say nothing need change because incumbents are comfortable with things the way they are.