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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Legislators work hard for their money

By David Shapiro

One of the silliest myths perpetuated by incumbent politicians is that they are victims of shady campaign finance laws just as much as anybody else.

Even some leading advocates of political reform buy into this ridiculous notion.

John Higgins, legislative liaison for Hawai'i Clean Elections, recently wrote: "The problem lies in the system as a whole, not in our individual legislators. ... We have good people caught in a bad system, and many would like to drop out of the money chase."

Perhaps Higgins was politely trying to catch his flies with honey instead of vinegar, but that doesn't work when you're dealing with flies that feed happily from the dung heap.

These supposed "good people caught in a bad system" are better described as self-serving opportunists who thrive off of the bad system.

Few elected officials have sincere desire to drop out of the money chase.

Why should they when it serves incumbents so well to pile up easy-come special-interest money that greases their re-election against hopelessly underfunded opponents?

The proof that lawmakers like the bad system just fine lies in their stubborn refusal to change it either by embracing public funding of elections, as Higgins' group proposes, or curbing the ability of special interests to so easily buy influence with campaign donations.

These donors are leading opponents of campaign reform; they take it as a constitutional right to buy the attention of politicians with big sums of money that the average citizen can't hope to match.

So it's no surprise that instead of promoting reform, legislators are moving in the opposite direction.

The main purpose of the campaign-reform bill passed by Democratic legislators last year was to curtail Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's ability to raise Mainland money, which she does better than they do.

Conveniently, the measure didn't stop Democratic members of Hawai'i's congressional delegation from continuing to raise vast amounts of Mainland money under federal election laws.

And the Democrats' pious disapproval of out-of-state donations didn't deter the local party from giving $5,000 to a Rhode Island Senate candidate in a transparent money-laundering scheme.

One of the few true reforms in last year's bill restricted corporate donations to political action committees, previously unlimited, to $2,000 per election cycle the same as for individuals.

Legislators, realizing the effects on their own campaign treasuries and under pressure from corporate donors who want to continue buying influence, now claim the corporate restriction was unintended and the Senate has moved a bill to repeal it.

Giving credit where due, the Senate did unanimously pass a worthwhile reform this year to prohibit lobbyists from making political donations when the Legislature is in session.

But the measure was quickly derailed in the House by the most devious of means.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, Judiciary Committee chairwoman, gutted the Senate bill on lobbyist donations and inserted unrelated language that could have rolled back the state's "sunshine law."

Alarmed sunshine advocates demanded that Luke table the reconstituted bill, which she gladly did bloodlessly killing the underlying campaign-reform measure in the process.

Activists who support both open government and clean elections were left frozen in their tracks.

Luke said the lobbyist restrictions could still come back this session in another vehicle, but don't wait to exhale on that one.

She used the same dodge last year when she killed a bill tightening Hawai'i's shamefully lax bribery laws for public officials.

It's a shame that lawmakers reserve their best creativity for protecting their own interests and those of their benefactors.

Imagine the good things that could happen if they applied such ingenuity to solving Hawai'i's problems.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.