With almost $1 million in his campaign fund, Donovan Dela Cruz shoots down an effort to give other candidates a chance.
Apparently Donovan Dela Cruz didn’t get the memo.
After a recent spate of government scandals, this was expected to be the year when reform measures would get serious consideration in the Hawaii Legislature.
But it was business as usual when the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee slowly tortured to death perhaps the most important good-government bill of the session, a proposal to greatly expand public financing of elections and give challengers a fighting chance against entrenched incumbents financially fortified by special interests.
And Dela Cruz did it behind closed doors, leaving the author of the legislation — Senate Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads — the task of informing the public that Senate Bill 1543 was going (Wednesday), going (Thursday), gone (Friday).
First Rhoads was forced to announce that his $30 million plan would receive only $7.5 million with its implementation postponed from 2026 to 2028. Then he revealed that total had been reduced to a $700,000 down payment — considerably less than the $945,719 that Dela Cruz had in just his own campaign fund as of Dec. 31.
And finally, there was no bill at all.
You’ll be hearing more from us about several other needed reform measures that died in the chaotic darkness of conference committee. They all are stark examples of why expansion of public campaign financing is desperately needed.
Don’t take our word for it. Consider these voices of support:
- “A reform like public financing has been due in Hawaii for many years,” testified Common Cause Hawaii. “With last year’s convictions of Senator J. Kalani English and Representative Ty Cullen for cash bribes, ethics in our state government has leapt to the front of the public’s collective mind.”
- The League of Women Voters of Hawaii testified SB 1543 would “protect representative democracy from being distorted by big spending in election campaigns.”
- “Public financing expands the reach of many small donors and can relieve candidates of the need to rely on the support of special interests or large groups,” wrote the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, formed by the House of Representatives last year to address the need for better government ethics and transparency in the islands.
- “We cannot afford to let money continue to dominate our politics and undermine our democracy,” wrote several former Hawaii governors and mayors — who know a lot about campaign fundraising — in an April 19 op-ed for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Heck, Dela Cruz himself voted for SB 1543 when his Ways and Means Committee unanimously passed the measure Feb. 22. He waited to pull out his hatchet until the end-of-session conference committee period — when money chairs reign supreme to decide the fate of proposed legislation with no public input.
Way too much of the people’s business happens in secret at the Legislature. The current operating rules of the House and Senate place too much power in the hands of legislative leaders and committee chairs who maintain order by doling out favors and privilege to colleagues who toe the line.
There are reform-minded people in the Legislature, but apparently not enough. We need more lawmakers who are willing to change those rules, open the shades and let in the light.
But we have to be willing to pay for it, because plenty of special interests are more than happy to keep paying to maintain the status quo.
“Over the past decade, an average of 90% of incumbents were re-elected during each election cycle,” wrote Colin Moore in a report released in February for the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.
“There are many reasons why incumbents rarely face defeat,” said Moore. “They are often talented leaders, they are familiar to voters in the district, and they have a network of dedicated supporters. But they also have access to far more money. Since 1994, incumbents in the Hawaii House spent $57,883 on average in each election, while challengers spent only $16,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars.”
Some incumbents spent far more during the last election cycle, according to Campaign Spending Commission records:
House Speaker Scott Saiki topped all spenders at $386,355. The next biggest spenders in his chamber were Della Au Belatti ($119,322) and Kyle Yamashita, the Finance Committee chair ($84,470).
In the Senate, Vice-President Michelle Kidani spent the most at $211,120, followed by President Ron Kouchi ($191,043), Lorraine Inouye ($180,594), Brandon Elefante ($176,003), Lynn DeCoite ($154,788), Sharon Moriwaki ($147,373), Dela Cruz ($143,795) and Gil Keith-Aragan ($141,608).
Keep in mind that many incumbents, like Dela Cruz, already have plenty of cash on-hand for their next re-election bids, or to campaign for higher office.
In a democracy, elections are a critical function.
Sen. Karl Rhoads
It was against this backdrop that Rhoads unveiled his proposal in January to put $30 million toward publicly financed campaigns. Applicants would have been required to prove their viability by collecting large amounts of certified $5 donations. And once they qualified for the public money they would have agreed not to seek additional contributions.
Based on the amounts spent in the 2022 elections, public financing would have given challengers a pretty good shot at wresting seats away from incumbents.
If they faced both primary and general election opponents, qualifying candidates could have received up to $2.5 million for gubernatorial races, $100,000 for Senate races and $50,000 for House races.
It’s a lot of money, but in today’s political environment a lot of money is needed for challengers to have a legitimate shot at winning. Rhoads noted the proposed $30 million disbursement from the general fund amounted to less than about 0.2% of the state’s general fund budget.
“In a democracy, elections are a critical function,” he said in announcing SB 1543. “For that to be generally funded makes perfect sense. It’s a critical government function.”
Hawaii has had a system of public campaign financing since voters enshrined it in the state constitution after delegates to the 1978 Constitutional Convention proposed it “to equalize opportunity for all to participate meaningfully in the political process.”
At one time the partial public funding played a key role in gubernatorial campaigns, and was used as recently as 2014 by then-Sen. David Ige in his successful bid to unseat Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
But in his UHERO report Moore noted the system is now seldom used because of its low amounts of money and complexity. Just $71,878 in public funds were disbursed to 15 campaigns in 2022. A bill that would have boosted partial public financing amounts died earlier in the session when proponents saw that Rhoads’ proposal seemed to be gaining some traction.
SB 1543 would have made public financing a much bigger deal — a prospect that some legislative leaders such as Dela Cruz clearly found disturbing. So they killed it behind closed doors without offering the public an explanation.
When they first drastically downsized the measure Wednesday, Rhoads speculated the shrunken proposal “seems to be what members can tolerate.”
We appreciate the senator’s frankness. But here’s to a better future, where the more pertinent question would be: What will we the people tolerate?