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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 11, 2002

Reform bills popular now

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Dogged by recent criminal cases against politicians and facing a pivotal election year, state legislators are moving some tough-minded reform and accountability bills at the Capitol.

'Good guy' bills
State lawmakers are moving legislation on campaign finance reform and on increasing accountability:
 •  House Bill 2844 and Senate Bill 2431: Ban campaign contributions from corporations, labor unions and government contractors.
 •  House Bill 2606: Empower citizens to recall state legislators.
 •  House Bill 2841: Force an elected official convicted of a crime to leave office upon conviction instead of when sentenced.
 •  House Bill 1717: Require ethics training for legislators and appointed state officials.
The aim, some political observers say, may be to address the guilt-by-association issue and polish the image of elected officials.

"I think that before it gets out of hand, the legislators are trying to clean their house so they can project a better image for the coming election," said Yas Kuroda, a University of Hawai'i political science professor.

During the past year, former Sen. Marshall Ige pleaded guilty to theft and tax evasion charges; former City Councilman Andy Mirikitani reported to federal prison after being convicted of a kickback scheme; and Mayor Jeremy Harris found his campaign organization under criminal investigation for alleged contribution violations.

Now the state House is advancing bills for campaign finance reform, recall of lawmakers, mandatory ethics training for officials, and the immediate ouster of any politician convicted of a crime.

The last bill addresses the controversy surrounding Mirikitani, who was allowed to remain in office for five months after his felony conviction.

Even more telling is the stance of the Senate. It has embraced campaign finance reform a year after rejecting the House attempt to ban contributions from corporations, labor unions and government contractors.

Now both houses are on board efforts to ban such contributions, which are not allowed in federal elections. The thinking is that these donations create at least the perception that politicians become indebted to big business and labor, or steer government contracts to major contributors.

Kuroda said of the bills: "I think it's a good idea before any outspoken citizens speak out against any of the wrongdoings before the election."

Lawmakers say they are pushing to reform campaign finance and other government systems to help prevent further abuse and encourage more public participation in the democratic process. Opinions are mixed as to what effect such legislation could have on elected officials' image.

Fighting cynicism

Lawmakers acknowledge they need to do something to show constituents they are aware of the problems that plague government. Others say it could help calm public cynicism fueled by political scandals and investigations.

An example is campaign finance reform, which may help lawmakers — particularly Democrats — distance themselves from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Harris.

House Majority Whip Brian Schatz, D-24th (Makiki, Tantalus), a campaign finance reform advocate, said he did not want to speculate on whether the Harris investigation had generated support for the bill.

But he did say, "There's no question that reforming the campaign finance system is going to help people in elections, because the public is demanding that the system be changed, and the public is also demanding that politicians distinguish themselves from some of those in the past that have done inappropriate things."

Campaign finance

Last year, the House passed a measure banning contributions from corporations and unions, but the bill stalled in the Senate after two key opponents, Sen. Cal Kawa-

moto and Sen. Donna Kim, shelved the issue. This year both senators signed on to a bill that would prohibit corporations, labor unions and government contractors from contributing to a candidate.

Kawamoto, D-19th (Waipahu, Pearl City), said he is supporting the bill because it still allows political action committees to contribute, and because it conforms with federal statutes that prohibit corporate or labor contributions. Kawamoto said he would schedule a hearing on the bill in his Transportation, Military and Government Operations Affairs Committee.

Kim, D-15th (Kalihi Valley, 'Aiea), said it's time to take another look at campaign finance reform.

Asked if the Harris case was a factor, she said, "I think it becomes more obvious with the greater the abuse. You don't want to just do a law for one infraction, but if it seems to be highly abused, then it's time to address it ... It's gotten to a point where the public is more aware of some of the abuses, and I think it just warrants us to hear it, and perhaps the timing is right now to pass it out."

Other bills advancing in the House would discount service when calculating retirement benefits of any official convicted of a crime, and set up a process by which constituents could demand a recall of a legislator with a petition signed by at least 25 percent of registered voters in the district.

The House Legislative Management Committee passed those bills, sending them to the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

Time right for recall

Committee Chairman Nathan Suzuki, D-31st (Salt Lake, Moanalua), said some House Democrats had mentioned it might be a perfect year for the recall bill, given the convictions of Mirikitani and Ige.

Ige was convicted of misdemeanor campaign spending violations and pleaded guilty last month to second-degree theft, attempted tax evasion and three misdemeanor counts of failing to file state tax returns.

House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, D-40th (Wahiawa, Whitmore), said House Democrats strongly support the bill.

"We've got to just let the public know that we're not going to tolerate a breach of the public trust, and that those elected officials who do breach the trust will pay the consequences — and that's recall," he said.

But while lawmakers need to show constituents they are addressing their concerns, legislation alone won't change public opinion, said Senate Vice President Colleen Hanabusa, among those who introduced the campaign finance reform bill.

Hanabusa, D-21st (Barbers Point, Makaha) said she hoped the measure would give the public "a sense of true participation," but that it would not eliminate cynicism.

"I honestly think it's going to take more than legislation to stop the public from painting us with a broad brush," she said. "I think that if we are more concerned about our image than doing what has to be done, that's when the public is going to be upset."

Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief Kevin Dayton contributed to this report. You can reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.