Hawaii council wants to try publicly funded elections
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
HILO, Hawai'i — The Big Island County Council has endorsed a plan to test publicly funded campaigns in the council races in 2010, marking the first time an elected body in the state has formally volunteered to try public financing.
In a 7-1 vote Tuesday, the council gave preliminary approval to a plan that provides "comprehensive public funding" for the campaign of any Big Island council candidates who collect both a $5 contribution and a qualifying petition signature from 200 registered voters in the district where they plan to run.
Advocates have been lobbying unsuccessfully for almost a decade to try to get the state Legislature to adopt various proposals for publicly funded campaigns, arguing that public financing would restore voters' confidence in government and encourage more people to participate in elections.
Those proposals have all failed, with lawmakers reluctant to tinker with a campaign finance system that helped many to win office. Campaign spending at all levels of government in Hawai'i is governed by state law, and only the Legislature can change it.
"If Hawai'i County is saying they want it, we're just going to get behind them and do whatever we can to help them out" at the state Legislature this year, said Kory Payne, community organizer for Voter Owned Hawai'i.
Last year House Speaker Calvin Say expressed concern about the potential cost of publicly funded elections, but the House unanimously approved a proposal to set up a system for publicly funded county council races last year. That bill, House Bill 661 HD1, stalled in the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee but can still be acted on when lawmakers meet this year.
Some lawmakers who oppose or are indifferent to public campaign funding may be willing to vote for a test run to watch it play out at the county level on the Big Island, Payne said. He said lawmakers realize that public financing of campaigns is a popular idea with the voters and are generally reluctant to publicly oppose it.
Under the Big Island council plan, the amount of public funding a candidate would receive would be calculated by averaging the amounts the winning candidates in that district spent in each of the last two elections, and then awarding 90 percent of that amount to each publicly funded candidate to use to run the race.
Candidates who choose public funding would only be allowed to spend the public funding and would face fines if they spend extra money. Candidates who choose not to participate in the publicly funded program would still be free to raise and spend money in the traditional way under existing campaign spending law.
The publicly funded campaigns would be financed from the Hawai'i Election Campaign Fund, which is funded by taxpayers through a voluntary checkoff on state income tax forms.
The council's Public Works and Intergovernmental Relations Committee approved a resolution in support of the plan in a 7-1 vote, with one member absent. The committee and the full council are composed of the same members, and the full council is scheduled to consider the issue on Jan. 23.
John Lyle, a retired teacher from Ka'u, told the council before the vote that public campaign financing in Arizona boosted voter turnout there by 23 percent and also dramatically improved turnout in Maine.
"It's gaining traction all over the country, this idea," he said. "I think this could get people more interested and involved in the political process, and we need that."
RoxAnne Lawson, a social worker from Puna, said she believes public campaign financing will lead to better representation for the middle and working classes, and for the poor. She said she hopes public financing will one day apply to state-level campaigns as well, "but we need to start somewhere and bring it to the state's attention."
Noelie Rodriguez, a sociology professor at Hawai'i Community College, said Big Island backers gathered 1,200 signatures in support of the county public-funded election plan.
"It costs so much more to campaign every year in the last 20 to 25 to 30 years that this is responding to a change that already has occurred, and that is the cost of campaigns being so great that most people who are running for office spend all their time fundraising, and almost none of their time really working with the community to find out what the community's needs are," Rodriguez said.
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