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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Feeding off corporate campaign donations

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, makes the curious argument that politicians need more campaign contributions to pay for mailings and donations to charity.


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In another disturbing sign of legislative self-entitlement, the state House appears close to abolishing limits on corporate donations to political action committees that support lawmakers' campaigns.

The Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, took up HB 539 to increase the limit on corporate PAC contributions from $1,000 to $25,000 per election, but ended up approving unlimited corporate donations.

The measure, which could pass the House and move to the Senate this week, would vastly increase corporate influence in local elections while ordinary citizens have barely a whisper.

Legislative leaders claim their passage of the $1,000 limit on corporations in 2005 was inadvertent, but reformers like Sen. Les Ihara say that alleged mistake was "the most significant campaign reform legislation in the last two decades."

Of special concern in the Judiciary Committee was the outrageous reasoning offered by Karamatsu in a rambling lecture to Barbara Polk of Americans for Democratic Action Hawai'i.

Lawmakers usually defend special-interest campaign donations by piously citing the free-speech rights of the special interests.

But Karamatsu defended legislators' rights to collect more corporate money and for uses other than campaigning.

Karamatsu said, "The costs (are) rising. I mean all of us here know what it is like ... it costs thousands of dollars to just do mailings. Those costs have gone up extraordinarily."

Nonsense. Campaign spending is already too high. A study of the 2006 election by the Campaign Spending Commission found that winning House candidates spent a hefty average of $40,000 and winning Senate candidates spent $80,000.

The big bucks are easy for incumbents to raise from special interests and a major barrier to challengers a big part of the reason 40 percent of incumbent legislators ran unopposed in 2008 and most of the rest had only token opposition.

Such lack of accountability at the polls is exactly why legislators feel free to enrich themselves with impunity by taking 36-percent pay raises while the rest of the community sucks it up, and pursuing more corporate cash that will make it even harder for challengers to take them on.

Karamatsu said legislators need more corporate money so they can donate more to their political parties and district charities.

Huh? The Legislature is virtually eliminating state funding for nonprofits because of the budget crisis, forcing the nonprofits to seek private sector help.

Now lawmakers want to suck that private money into their campaign funds so they can dole out charitable contributions themselves not according to who has the most need, but what buys the most votes.

Why are legislators entitled to make political party and charitable contributions with other folks' money while the rest of us donate out of our own pockets?

Karamatsu invoked fond memories of discredited former Sen. Cal Kawamoto, who was cited by the Campaign Spending Commission for buying votes with charitable donations, among other violations, and then tried to pass legislation limiting the commission's oversight of legislators.

"You guys put pressures ... on how much we can give to nonprofits. If not, we get busted like Cal Kawamoto," Karamatsu griped. "Every time we're getting sex-abuse fundraising letter and domestic violence fundraising letter ... He helped all these kids, and he got blasted for it. You're tying our hands on what we can do here."

Voters got tired of Kawamoto's campaign spending shenanigans and gave him the boot in 2004 by a huge margin.

So how do legislators respond to this clear message from voters? They put Cal Kawamoto Jr. in charge of the Judiciary Committee to try to legitimatize the unethical practices Kawamoto was booted for.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.