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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 26, 2010

A timid rewrite of campaign spending law

Sometimes we have to hold our noses and support a piece of legislation that falls painfully short of its potential.

Still, something is better than nothing. Such is the case with House Bill 2003, the omnibus measure on campaign spending reform. It should become law.

There are three things to like about this bill.

First, it gathers the scattered statutes governing campaign spending into one section of an existing chapter of law. Previously, the statutes were inconsistent and unclear, never a good thing but even worse when it concerns laws of such importance to good government.

Second, the bill makes it easier to track the money that entities with deep pockets including labor unions and corporations give to candidates. For any aggregate contribution over $1,000, the donor must file a report with the state Campaign Spending Commission.

However, the commission needs the money and staff to make the information promptly retrievable online; otherwise, this improvement becomes inconsequential.

Third, lawmakers decided not to tinker with the existing ban on campaign contributions from anyone doing contract work for the state. That's a relief: We need fewer opportunities for influence-peddling in our laws, not more of them.

Now for the demerits. Public interest advocates such as Common Cause Hawaii are rightly appalled by one provision in particular: allowing all of these donating entities corporations, unions and other organizations to be treated just like an individual person under the law, and give each candidate up to the same contribution limits that govern individual donors. This means $2,000, $4,000 or $6,000 per candidate, depending on the office, with no limit to the combined total.

There's no rational reason why Hawai'i law should be so hospitable to large-scale donors when a similar practice is utterly banned at the federal level.

Ideally, campaign finance laws would keep such political influence to a minimum, moving the elective process closer to a level playing field not one that protects the dominance of the pay-to-play system.

Further, there's so much more that reform should have accomplished. Just one example: Lawmakers could have required lobbyists to report campaign contributions, but they didn't.

The Legislature needs to come back in January a non-election year, when politicians might be more willing to act in the public's interest rather than their own and have a go at some real campaign finance reform.