Corporate power lines underscore Hawaii’s campaign finance question

Beth-Ann Kozlovich
A view from the Senate floor at the Hawaii State Capitol. Photo by Ashlee Meyer

HONOLULU—The Campaign Spending Commission (CSC) wants to have Hawaii’s campaign finance law clarified. The question is whether House Bill 2003 passed by the Senate on Thursday will adequately do the job and what the bill will look like after it emerges from conference.

With last year’s reaffirmation of Hawaii’s Tavares v. Wong ruling plus the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January, the CSC has good reason to have Hawaii’s campaign spending law recodified. The long U.S. tradition of campaign finance restrictions and its impact on Hawaii’s law seems to have shifted to a protection of corporate and labor union interests.

Robert Stern, President of the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS)—a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank based in Los Angeles—says it’s not surprising.

“The Citizens United case obviously has an impact, but the biggest impact is that it says that the court is willing to overturn past precedent and provide more rights to corporations and to big donors,” Stern says. “Even Justice [Clarence] Thomas says he doesn’t believe in disclosure anymore.”

That stance is contrary to decades of federal support for prohibitions of corporate and union campaign donations in an effort to combat undue influence on the political process. Beginning with the Tillman Act in 1907, campaign finance reform of the 1970s led to the creation of the Federal Election Commission and continued into the 21st century with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act also known as McCain-Feingold in 2003.

In Hawaii, the original 2007 Tavares decision spotlighted issues of transparency: whether companies should have to register with the CSC as a non-candidate committee and be allowed to give amounts up to a specified limit through those committees; whether companies could give directly to a candidate from their general treasuries; and how reporting of the contributions would be handled. The $1000 cap placed on allowable corporate contributions through a political action committee continued to come under fire.

Despite attempts by the Legislature to grapple with the hodgepodge of campaign finance law, in the 2009 session, none of the bills passed that would have set rules and amounts for corporate donations made through non-candidate committees.

The CSC again proposed clarification bills in the 2010 session. By March, HB2003 was the only one left alive, though it had gone through successive changes. Community groups including Common Cause Hawaii, the League of Women Voters, and Americans for Democratic Action Hawaii were unhappy with the dilution of the bill as it moved through committees. Mobilizing their constituents, the groups advocated replacement language to beef up the bill and address the lack of transparency in certain provisions.

On Tuesday, a House floor amendment introduced at the third reading of HB2003 re-inserted the $1,000 aggregate limit to political action committees. It also restored the government contractor prohibition. But the amendment removed the disclosure language—further obscuring the kind of transparency the community groups and some lawmakers sought to have in the bill.

Senator Les Ihara was one of four dissenter votes when the bill passed on Thursday morning.

“The bill took a position to give corporations equal political participation rights as individuals—that was a core issue we’ve been debating for a number of years,” Ihara says. “I come down on the side that corporations already have way too much power at the Legislature and in elections and to give them much more power by removing the $1,000 aggregate cap; I’m not able to support that.”

Ihara was joined by Senators Gary Hooser, Fred Hemmings, and Sam Slom. Ihara says that while he understands Hooser’s objections, he is surprised at Hemmings’ and Slom’s “no” votes.

The community groups are likewise not satisfied, says Barbara Polk of Americans for Democratic Action Hawaii: “This final one is the worst at this point.”

Nikki Love, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, is more circumspect about HB2003. “We’re hoping that in conference, we’ll be able to address some of the issues we’re concerned about and have been working on this session,” Love says.

Meanwhile, CGS’s Stern says he’s surprised Hawaii legislators would choose an election year to water down campaign finance law. “Many [lawmakers] are up this year and are leaving open the possibility of an opponent saying you’re trying to weaken disclosure laws—why are you doing that?” Stern says. “It gives them a great issue to run against.”

Or perhaps not. While Hawaii’s campaign spending law could be better, Stern’s organization still ranks Hawaii seventh with a B grade in its 2008 State Disclosure report. Whether Hawaii’s ranking would change for 2009 and 2010, we’ll never know; CGS lost its funding to continue the study.

Regardless of how Hawaii would be ranked—and Ihara conjectures the impact of the last two years would markedly change Hawaii’s standing—Stern says the focus should stay on the money and power lines corporations are able to draw around their candidates of choice.

“At some point, the public will realize the effect of campaign money on the governmental process,” Stern says. “Most of this money comes from people who want something from government and the public needs to wake up to that fact.”

If it’s all about the influence of corporate money, Maryland’s Murray Hill, Inc. is delighted. In a satirical jab at campaign finance un-reform, the company is the first corporate “candidate” to run for Congress. The company’s YouTube video has been seen by over 200,000 people and they’ve received national attention for asserting their “corporate personhood.”

According to William Klein, spokesperson for Murray Hill, Inc., “The Corporation saw an opportunity after the Supreme Court’s enlightened ruling in the Citizens United case and we wanted to get into this emerging market before the whole thing was bought by China.”

At the end of the campaign, Klein thinks the Murray Hill, Inc. candidacy will make people think more deeply about the issue of corporate campaign spending and issues of transparency.

“The Supreme Court ruling took place in an ivory tower,” Klein says. “We feel that by taking this decision and applying it in the context of a political campaign, it shows the logical next step of what the Supreme Court was talking about. We hope that people will understand the full ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision and what it means to ensure that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to our democracy and election process.”

While Murray Hill, Inc. is using social media and humor to make their point, locally, Ihara, Love, and Polk envision something a little more serious to connect like-minded people and apply pressure for publicly funded campaigns in the not too distant future. It will still come down to numbers—money and people. How many will support private individuals with good ideas but not a lot of cash? Ihara, Love, Polk, and Stern point to the success of publicly funded campaigns in California, Oregon, Arizona, and Maine. The only way to level the political campaign playing field is to equalize the money.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait to see what happens when the conference version of HB2003 emerges. Will it contain more of the limitations sought by Love’s and Polk’s good government community organizations and the lawmakers in support of campaign finance transparency—or will the last incarnation of HB2003 further swing the pendulum toward corporate campaign business as usual?

The complete Town Square interview with Senator Les Ihara, Nikki Love, Barbara Polk, Robert Stern, and William Klein is on the Hawaii Public Radio archive.