The Sunshine Blog: Reform momentum continues, reining in pay-to-play, gifts that pass on


Short takes, outtakes, observations, and other things you should know about public information, government accountability, and ethical leadership in Hawaii.

marathon man: House Speaker David Tarnas continues to advance government reform legislation efficiently and with the friendliness that has become a hallmark of his new leadership of the committee.

Tarnas is one of the chairmen who takes the time to patiently explain any changes or additions, including the reasons why he doesn’t move a bill forward. On Friday he had a plateful of sunshine bills for handling in just that manner, including field testimony from local and national commentators, in person and online.

At the end of the hearing, which lasted more than two hours, the committee heard 15 bills on elections and campaign finance, as well as some on other issues. The committee passed 13 of the reform measures, all of which came from the Senate and included some ideas that were not on the agenda of various state commissions behind most of the accountability legislation in that session.

Two bills aimed at limiting how much money super-PACs could spend against opposing candidates were scrapped after prosecutors warned they would violate previous US Supreme Court rulings (as in the Citizens case). United), according to which spending money is a right to free speech.

House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Chairman David Tarnas, right, on Friday pulled more than a dozen Sunshine Bills out of committee and closer to implementation. At left is Vice Chairman Rep. Gregg Takayama. (Screenshot/2023)

Some brief highlights of bills approved by the Judiciary Committee:

• Senate Bill 1076: The much-discussed voter’s guide. After the AG and election officials argued over it, the measure was previously rejected by the House of Representatives but survived in the Senate and has now been approved by the House Judiciary after authorities appeared to settle their differences. The digital voter’s guide received overwhelming support on Friday — “I love this law,” citizen activist Kat Brady told the committee — from various people who see it as an important contribution to voter education. They believe it could improve even Hawaii’s woefully low turnout. Scott Nago, the state’s chief elections officer, noted that his office estimates the cost of compiling such a guide at $171,248. The measure will now go to the House Finance Committee for review.

• Senate Bill 1179: An attempt to prevent foreign nationals and foreign corporations from influencing Hawaii’s elections. This is legislation under consideration in several states and seeks to fill a loophole opened by the US Supreme Court in Citizens United’s ruling that gives foreign-owned companies the ability to put money into US elections to invest. National advocates hope to use state laws and local ordinances to block foreign money.

• Senate Bill 627: Allows candidates to use campaign funds for child care. Plenty of testimony in support of this proposal, including a representative from the national Vote Mama organization who told the committee the federal election commission approved it for federal candidates. The group is working to grant a similar permit in all 50 states.

• Senate Bill 201: Prohibits state and local contractors and grantees, their owners, officers and immediate family members from making campaign contributions. This extends an already existing ban to the companies themselves. Read more about it in our next blog, because the Senate Judiciary also passed it and the House Committee passed that version.

Perhaps the most heated discussion of the House hearing was in relation to Senate Bill 1543, a proposal to create a large public funding program for candidates running for all elected offices at the state and county levels. The bill, like all others, passed unanimously, but not before committee members raised a red flag about how much it might cost — potentially $30 million — and whether the state can afford a program of this type.

Tarnas and the committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Gregg Takayama, pointed out that although the House of Representatives passed a budget of about $19 billion last week, the spending plan did not include the about 140 passed by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate-routed proposals contained about $500 million.

Though funding was far from secure, Tarnas amended the bill to require candidates to receive at least 200 small donations from voters in their districts — 400 in the gubernatorial race — to show they are serious candidates with significant Voter support before they qualify for thousands of dollars in public funding.

Is the end of Pay to Play in sight?: The Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday voted unanimously to move forward House Bill 724, which would ban government contractors and state and county grantees (which are any nonprofit organizations that receive grant money) from making campaign contributions to political candidates. The bans would also extend to officers at those companies, as well as their immediate family members.

As mentioned above, later on Friday the House Judiciary Committee replaced the similar but not quite the same Senate Bill 201 with House Bill 724. So now they agree.

HB 724 had only one committee referral, so its next stop is a full Senate vote. But on Friday there was a change that the chairman had not foreseen.

The committee amended the bill to exempt qualifying contributions required to access publicly funded campaign funds. Candidates wishing to receive public funding must make a predetermined $5 contribution. The original bill would have included these in the ban.

“It seems to me that the same logic applies here,” said committee chair Senator Karl Rhoads during a brief discussion. He had originally planned to pass the measure unchanged.

Senator Joy San Buenaventura feared the measure could “complicate grassroots campaigning.”

Rhoads eventually recommended that the committee exempt donations from contributions required to access public campaign funding.

At the House hearing, Judiciary Chairman David Tarnas said he didn’t quite understand what San Buenaventura was talking about, but accepted the amended version anyway.

Earlier in the Senate hearing, Dan Foley, chairman of the Standards Commission, which proposed a measure similar to HB 724, said the intent of banning contractors from donating was to avoid instances of pay-to-play where executives of a Corporate donations are made by politicians in return for favors.

Although the bill originally would have covered small donations, he said that wasn’t necessarily the aim of the ban.

“The rice and chili fundraiser isn’t typically viewed as payment for gambling,” Foley said.

And in another recent sunshine action: One way political officials ingratiate themselves with their communities is through charitable giving.

But is that an appropriate use of funds they received in the form of campaign contributions?

No, said the Commission for the Improvement of Standards of Conduct, formed last year after numerous scandals involving officials, including two former MPs convicted of bribery. The commission proposed House Bill 727 to ban candidates from spending campaign funds on non-campaign items.

“Contributions to community groups are simply ‘seeding the church’ for future votes,” wrote Janet Mason of the League of Women Voters in support of the initiative.

Mason, who was also a member of the Standards Commission, added, “When the candidate donates in this manner, they effectively supersede their judgment of which organizations deserve financial support, rather than allowing donors that choice.”

Many campaign donations in Hawaii are not spent on campaigns.

“During the 2022 campaign reporting period, nearly $216,000 was donated to charities, full-time scholarships, public schools and public libraries,” Mason said in her statement. “Again in 2022, $350,577 was spent on purchasing tickets for other candidates’ fundraisers, in addition to community dues.”

Janet Mason, panelist for the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, listens to members speak.
Panellist for the Commission on the Improvement of Standards of Conduct, Janet Mason, at a meeting last year. She later testified on behalf of the League of Women Voters to ban candidates from spending campaign funds on non-campaign items. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

These may well go to good causes, with the possible exception of fundraisers by other candidates. But the law would have banned using campaign funds to give money to charities, schools and libraries, as well as the longstanding practice of using it to buy two tickets to other politicians’ fundraisers.

Still, on February 23, the House Judiciary Committee dropped almost all of those bans, retaining only the ban on buying tickets to other candidates’ fundraisers.

“Your committee believes it makes sense to allow campaign funds to be donated or awarded for specific public causes such as public schools, public libraries, or even providing scholarships to full-time students,” Chairman David Tarnas later wrote in the bill Report. “Restoring the authority to donate campaign funds to specific causes ensures that funds raised by a campaign are returned to the public to improve public services and provide educational opportunities for students.”

The lighter bill is now scheduled to be heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday,” Shapiro said.

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