Hawaii court upholds higher political donations
By MARK NIESSE
HONOLULU — Hawaii businesses may donate the same amounts to political candidates as individuals, according to a Thursday ruling by the state Intermediate Court of Appeals upholding a lower court’s decision.
The appeals court rejected an argument that companies should only be allowed to contribute a total of $1,000 to all candidates in an election.
The court’s decision means that businesses and unions can donate to a candidate as much as campaign committees and individuals — between $2,000 and $6,000 per election cycle, depending on the office being sought.
The case pitted Maui Mayor Charmaine Tavares against the state Campaign Spending Commission, which claimed that she shouldn’t have accepted contributions of more than $1,000 from several businesses during her 2006 run for office.
The court said the law is “clear and unambiguous” in that it only limits contributions to political action committees to $1,000, and it doesn’t prohibit direct donations to candidates.
“We’re very pleased. What the court said is what we believed all along,” said William Crockett, a Maui attorney who represented the Tavares campaign. “The whole law makes sense. I don’t think it’s an illogical mish-mash.”
Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Barbara Wong said the court’s ruling will make it more difficult for voters to know who is giving money to which candidates.
“The court’s decision is a blow to transparency,” Wong said. “The public will no longer be able to see at a glance, in one noncandidate report, special interest campaign contributions and expenditures.”
The dispute arose out of a law passed by the 2005 Legislature that the Campaign Spending Commission argued was meant to hinder business from influencing the outcome of elections. The law limits contributions to a noncandidate committee to $1,000.
If the court’s ruling stands, companies still may not donate more than $1,000 to a political action committee, but they can directly give up to the maximum allowed to as many candidates as they choose. Wong didn’t say whether she would appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
The Hawaii Legislature considered passing a measure this year that would have raised the amount businesses could donate to political action committees to as much as $50,000, but lawmakers turned away the proposal amid protests from government watchdog groups.
“They took a gamble and now they’ve lost. With this decision, there is no cap” on the total amount businesses can give directly to all candidates, said House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa.
Oshiro said he supports creating a limit next year, but he doubts such a proposal will have enough political backing to become law.
Twenty-one states ban corporate contributions to political action committees and candidates, according to Americans for Democratic Action-Hawaii. Another 14 states limit corporate political action committee contributions.