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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 13, 2006

Public election fund deserves another look

Getting elected officials to overturn the system that got them elected will always be an uphill battle. The only way to get up the hill is by taking it one step at a time.

The push to enable the complete public funding of elections, unfortunately, has stalled for the past several years. In the wake of the national lobbyist scandals and Honolulu's own campaign contribution trials, such a system is a worthwhile investment of taxpayer money because it would help insulate political campaigns from influence peddling.

But how do we get there from here?

A grass-roots group called Voter Owned Elections Hawai'i wants public campaign funds allotted to any candidate who garners signatures from 200 constituents who each toss $5 into a statewide fund. Once qualified, the candidate would receive a limited amount of taxpayer money, with a cap based on the cost of past successful campaigns in that district.

Maine and Arizona enacted similar plans through voter initiative, which doesn't exist in Hawai'i. So we have to rely on lawmakers to propel the revolutionary change and, despite the current budget surplus, it's unrealistic to expect legislators to support publicly funded campaigns for every state House district. This would be a continuing expense, competing with other demands for the money.

However, there's merit in testing the idea through a more manageable pilot program. The city prosecutor's race, for example, involves candidates eager to demonstrate their independence from special interests.

Sensibly, lawmakers favor using House Bill 1713, carried over from 2005, as the vehicle instead of the new measure submitted this session. Restarting the whole process with a new measure won't advance the idea any further.

Supporters have launched a series of community workshops, which will help spread the message that funded elections keep the political process open. Special interests inevitably pass on the costs of campaign contributions to consumers, anyway.

Voters should let their elected leaders know they like this idea. Conference committee: Bring it off the shelf, please.