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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 8, 2010

Ruling shows need for clean elections

By Kory Payne

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on advertisements for political candidates is shocking. Corporations by far the wealthiest of these two interests will have an incredible advantage when it comes to influencing the lawmaking arena.

Now some of the most wealthy and aggressive corporations in the oil, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries will be able to walk into legislators' offices and tell them to vote a certain way or else they're going to spend millions of dollars to advertise against that politician. For companies who are netting billions of dollars each quarter, this is small potatoes. Shareholder law requires that corporations only act in the interest of making money, and it doesn't get any more profitable than buying laws.

If there's any silver lining to be gleaned from this offensive decision, it's that now the call is even greater for a public financing option for elections. Voter Owned, Fair, or Clean Elections is a type of campaign finance reform that gives candidates the choice either to run their campaigns with private money, or to attempt to qualify for a competitive amount of public money.

By requiring candidates to qualify to receive public funds, these types of programs weed out candidates who are not familiar with or popular in their own community, or whose ideas are not sound. Instead, they provide public money to candidates who are able to win over the people within their own district. In the long run, these systems save taxpayer money that otherwise gets wasted on unnecessary tax cuts for corporations, no-bid contracts, infrastructure mismanagement, health care costs, and other hidden costs that come along with poor policy-making.

Citizen groups like Voter Owned Hawaii and Common Cause worked for more than ten years to persuade state legislators to try this type of system. Finally in 2008, Hawai'i passed HB 661, which created Act 244, a test program for clean elections for the Big Island County Council elections, beginning this fall.

To qualify for public funds in Hawai'i County, a candidate has to gather 200 signatures from registered voters within his or her own district, and each signature has to be accompanied by a $5 check or money order.

As we speak, candidates on the Big Island are going door-to-door, holding house parties and registering voters to qualify for public money to run for office. Instead of dialing for dollars from wealthy interests many of whom don't even live in Hawai'i these candidates are instead getting in touch with the people they mean to represent. This is a profound shift from the "pay-to-play" style of privately financed candidates, and will help balance the damage that has been done by the Supreme Court.

Positive side effects of a public funding option will soon become evident as well. In other states where these programs are working, there is a steady increase in voter turnout, and the lost trust between politicians and constituents is on the mend. Similarly, candidates running for office begin to focus more on the people who live in their districts, and as a consequence, the quality of legislation begins to reflect that reality.

The Big Island program came at the right time. After large banks rigged laws that led to the recession, and after watching the health industry blanket politicians with money during the debate on health-care legislation, it couldn't be more clear how problematic money in politics has become.

Here in Hawai'i, even despite the gravity of the Supreme Court's decision, the House Judiciary Committee passed House Bill 2249, sending it to the floor for a vote. Only one person on the 16-member committee showed up and voted "no." HB 2249 would weaken current safeguards that limit the amount of money that government contractors can give to politicians.

Additionally, some of Hawai'i's legislators are still working to eliminate Act 244 altogether. Because we've had a "pay-to-play" elections system for so long, many view public funding as a threat to the status quo. It's important that citizens stand up now for this important issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has drawn a line in the sand by making this outrageous decision. Now, we need to cross that line, demand a public funding option for elections, and take back control of an elections process that has been sold out to the highest bidder.