Election public funding is part of solution
By Kory Payne
During an epic time in which there are so many important issues facing Hawai'i, questions have been raised recently about why so many county and state legislators are running unchallenged. Nowhere is this phenomenon as noticeable as the City Council. Out of nine incumbents, only four have challengers.
There really is no mystery to this dilemma. It comes down to cash. Incumbents simply have too much money for competitors to mount a serious campaign to challenge them this November. While it's laughable that there is such a lack of candidates, at some point the laughter fades into a realization that this is a symptom of a larger, more serious problem.
A lack of political challengers means a lack of new ideas that are put on the table in the halls of power. It also means a lack of challenges to current ideas.
Even our kids can tell us that with rising oil prices there will be fewer tourists flying to Hawai'i for vacation. Bad times are surely on the horizon. Shipping food and goods will also become more expensive, and all of this is going to leave Hawai'i's economy and consumers shaken.
There's no doubt there are solutions to our problems, however. Together, we can figure out ways to help ourselves, and we're beginning to scratch the surface of these solutions. Reactionary politics is not going to be enough though.
We need to aggressively make sure local farms are going to have the tools and resources to make food for people in Hawai'i, minimizing the need to pay to import food. We need to aggressively create recycling facilities that will create jobs and valuable byproducts while we spend $7 million per year shipping our garbage to the state of Washington. The time for pre-emptive solutions is now, not later.
Implementing these solutions also depends on having healthy debate and healthy challenges to the status quo. Elections are a sort of litmus test for the health of our system of government. The fact that five out of nine City Council seats are going unchallenged is a troubling diagnosis. Even the incumbents should be troubled, not relieved, that this is the case.
Some legislators understand this problem. Sen. Les Ihara, who represents Kaimuki and Palolo Valley, seeks people to challenge him in elections where he appears to have no competitors. This reveals a deeper understanding for the necessity of challengers to political office.
Many states across the country are working to implement an obvious remedy to the problem of a lack of candidates in today's malfunctioning elections: They are providing a full public-funding option for candidates. Essentially, this would give candidates the choice between running their campaign with private money, or attempting to qualify for public money to help them get their ideas into the arena of debate.
In Maine, a full public-funding option is having major impacts on the number of uncontested races. From 1990 to 2000, the average number unchallenged seats was 30 out of 186. Maine implemented a full public-funding option beginning in 2002, and from 2004 to 2006 the number of unchallenged seats dropped to an average of 2.5 out of 186 races.
Qualifying for public funds is no easy task, but providing the option allows people who have good ideas and lots of community support to get their ideas out there. To qualify, candidates must acquire a predetermined number of signatures from registered voters who live in the district for which they're running. In addition, each signature must be accompanied with a $5 check or money order. For Hawai'i County, the number of signatures would be set at 200. In other states, approximately 30 percent of the people who attempt to qualify are actually successful.
HB 661, which would create a pilot project for Hawai'i County for a full public-funding option, would allow Hawai'i to take a lead on this exciting idea. The bill would allow us to test the public-funding option in Hawai'i County for the 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections. The money to fund the program would come from voluntary contributions from state income-tax forms. The money is sitting in the Hawai'i Election Campaign Fund. Safety valves built into the bill would also make sure the pilot program does not deplete too much money from the fund.
Vetoing this bill would be a mistake. At a time when we need to be making decisions that allow the best ideas to rise to the surface, this bill would plant the seeds to allow for that process to germinate. A veto of this bill would hack down another important solution to our impending problems that are looming on the horizon.
Kory Payne is a community organizer with Voter Owned Hawai'i. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.