The beneficiaries of Hawaii’s test run of publicly funded political campaigns were mostly candidates who previously won elections without government help.
More money was handed out to incumbents than to political newcomers in this year’s experiment with publicly funded elections.
Eight candidates qualified for government assistance in the Hawaii County Council race, five of whom already hold seats on the council. Of the three challengers, only one advanced after last Saturday’s primary election.
Even that candidate, Brittany Smart, said the program may have helped her incumbent opponent as much as it helped her attempt to unseat him.
"It’s been a huge blessing to get the public funding," Smart said today. "Although it wasn’t intended to, I think it did help incumbents a little bit because they already had their list of people they could go to get funding. I had to start from scratch."
Smart finished in first place among four contenders for the district representing Puna, Kau and South Kona. She’ll face sitting Councilman Guy Enriques, who finished in second place, in a general election runoff.
Both candidates received nearly $38,000 from the state after submitting more than 200 signatures and 200 donations of $5 each. Publicly funded candidates aren’t allowed to accept any additional outside money.
"It’s nice, especially in this economy, that we don’t have to ask the general public for help," Enriques said. "But there are still a lot of problems with it."
For example, Enriques said it’s unfair that he and Smart received public funding while their other two opponents had to raise money on their own. He also said it was difficult to qualify because the small contributions had to be made by check or money order, and donors had to provide street addresses for their contributions to be counted.
While the program didn’t attract many new candidates, it was successful in removing the corrupting influence of private money from politics, said Kory Payne, executive director for Voter Owned Hawaii, which pushed for the law.
"We’re glad to see incumbents break free from the constraints of trying to raise private money and instead focus their attention on the people they represent," Payne said.
This is the first of three election years in which the Big Island will test this system of publicly funded elections. If successful, the system could be expanded to other parts of the state.
Money for the program comes from about $5 million saved in the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which is paid into by taxpayers who check a box on their income tax forms to donate $3.
In all, the program is paying out about $147,000 to candidates this election year — about $89,000 to incumbents and $58,000 to challengers.
"Even if it costs several hundred thousand dollars, that could result in millions saved in money that isn’t spent wastefully for special interests," said Sen. Josh Green, D-Milolii-Waimea, who supports the initiative.
Payne said he expects more fresh candidates to participate in the program next election year because more people will be aware of it by then.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled against a similar program in Arizona, but that decision doesn’t affect other states.