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Big Island launching publicly funded elections

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Hawaii is moving forward with its test run of publicly funded political campaigns this election year, despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a similar setup in Arizona.

The state’s experiment with publicly funded elections starts with this fall’s Hawaii County Council contest, where 16 candidates applied to participate in the program before last Monday’s deadline, according to the Campaign Spending Commission.

The June 8 Supreme Court decision doesn’t affect states outside Arizona, but the ruling could lead to future legal challenges of public funding in states including Hawaii, Connecticut and Maine. No litigation appeared to be pending in Hawaii as of Friday.

Advocates including Hawaii County Council candidate Barbara Lively said publicly paid elections help take the corrupting influence of money out of political campaigns. Lively anticipates receiving more than $23,000 in government money to seek her first run for office. She is vying for the Puna district seat.

“It’s trying to weed out the special interests and influence groups,” said Lively, who is unemployed but has worked for the county in the past. “It’s absurd that offices are bought and paid for with ridiculous sums of money.”

Money for the program comes the $4.5 million Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which is paid into by taxpayers who check a box on their income tax forms to donate $3.

Candidates seeking public money must submit 200 signatures and 200 $5 donations each. In exchange, they’re granted money based on a formula that averages the amount spent by winning district candidates in the last two election years, minus 10 percent.

Candidates aren’t allowed to accept any outside money.

“We’re excited people on the Big island will have a chance to interact with candidates who aren’t just trying to raise money. They’re really pushing their ideas,” said Kory Payne, executive director for Voter Owned Hawaii, which pushed for the law.

Of those using taxpayer money for their campaigns this year, six are incumbents seeking re-election to the nine-member Hawaii County Council.

Some council members urged the Hawaii Legislature to delay the launch of publicly funded elections because of concerns it would harm free-speech rights of privately financed candidates.

Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, who signed up for public financing and received $6,900, said he worried it wouldn’t be fair if the program overran its $300,000 budget and late-filing candidates would be out of luck.

“If the state is going to implement a public funding program, what should be good for one should be good for all,” said Yoshimoto, who represents the South Hilo district. “Public funding can be an asset to everyone because it would put some controls on the amount of money that’s put into campaigns.”

Candidates won’t be shortchanged this year because the $300,000 budget is enough to cover the 16 candidates who applied, said Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Barbara Wong.

Public funding could spread to more county or statewide elections, depending on the success of the Big Island’s trial.

Any expansion of the program would require more money because the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund is shrinking and Campaign Spending Commission employees are working long hours and on furlough days without additional pay, Wong said.

“They need large amounts of money to run the program. The money has to come from somewhere,” she said.

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