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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Chance lost for campaign finance reform

By David Shapiro

Campaign finance reform was the easiest action the Legislature could have taken this year to keep faith with voters desperate to see integrity restored to Hawai'i's political institutions.

Legislation to get the dirty money out of political campaigns would have cost nothing in a tight budget year, nor would it have taken much work for lawmakers to show that they're serious about change.

All they had to do was revive a bill they passed last year and fix a few flaws that caused former Gov. Ben Cayetano to veto it — including a dodge in which they excluded themselves from paying for restrictions.

By failing to act, legislators continued to demean the credibility of our elections by perpetuating a self-serving system in which public office is bought with special-interest money rather than won in fair competition.

We've seen a parade of companies fined for illegal donations to politicians who determine how much government work they get. Criminal investigations are ongoing.

The House passed an honest bill to ban political donations by government contractors, as well as direct contributions from corporations and labor unions. Representatives extended the restrictions to cover themselves.

But Senate Democrats led by Sen. Cal Kawamoto of Waipahu cynically perverted the reform vehicle to instead loosen controls on campaign finances and cement their own hold on office.

Senators opened loopholes in the ban on donations from government contractors, exempted themselves from restrictions, permitted lawmakers to buy votes by diverting campaign money to community groups and stripped the Campaign Spending Commission of key funding it uses to enforce the law.

Kawamoto unabashedly sought to thwart an investigation into his practice of currying favor among community groups by giving them contributions from his campaign funds that exceed legal limits.

The House rightly refused to accept the Kawamoto "reforms," and the bill died when the Senate wouldn't budge. House negotiators were so outraged by Kawamoto's self-dealing that they took the unusual step of requesting that he be excluded from future deliberations.

Kawamoto is a poster child for why campaign finance reform is needed.

As the leading champion of traffic cameras, perhaps the most unpopular program the Legislature ever foisted on the voting public, you'd think Kawamoto would have been one of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election last year.

Instead, he ran unopposed in both the primary and general elections. Why? Because he scared off challengers by amassing a huge campaign fund of some $265,000, raised mainly from special interests happy with how he attends to their needs in the Legislature.

With no opponents, Kawamoto was free to sprinkle generous contributions from his campaign fund among community groups in his district, effectively buying their support and all but assuring that he'll face no significant opposition again in the next election.

While Kawamoto is the master at working this sweet deal, he's not the only senator who exploits flaws in the system that so strongly favor incumbents.

Armed with bankrolls of special-interest money, eight senators — nearly a third of the Senate — ran unopposed for re-election last year.

Several others had only to contend with underfinanced token opposition.

Critics suggest that an independent commission be appointed to end the stalemate over campaign finance reform and do the job that should be the responsibility of our elected representatives.

We can't expect real change, however, until reform-minded individuals and community groups put their own voices and money behind a concerted effort to hold lawmakers to account for voting their self-interest ahead of the public interest.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.