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Editorial | Island Voices

The public option

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WHEN IT comes to fixing the eroding public sector, the expanding government debt and the disappearing middle class, a full public funding option for elections—"fair elections"—is the deal of the century for taxpayers. We simply can’t afford to let interests with a profit-only motive continue to make our laws.

For example, we’ve known for decades that it’s critical we shift our fossil fuel-based economy to other sources. This necessity, however, is in direct opposition to the profit motive of multinational oil companies and their shareholder laws; and because of that, they have essentially purchased access to and influence on—through campaign donations and lobbyists—the very people who decide on our energy policies.

When laws are manipulated by entities who do not, or cannot, act in the public’s best interest, we end up with disastrous policies across multiple sectors: collapsed banking systems; more imported than locally grown food; failing public schools; outdated levees to protect cities from storms; chemicals in our food and water; overpriced medicine; and oil rigs in our waters that have no emergency backup plans.

IN JUNE, the U.S. Supreme Court sided again with the wealthiest interests over the public’s when it issued an order that opens up the possibility of a ruling against the "matching funds" mechanism in Arizona’s fair elections law. While such a ruling would leave the guts of Arizona’s law untouched, advocates for fair elections are not sanguine; they are working on alternative matching funds models to replace Arizona’s.

Matching funds help publicly funded candidates remain competitive by providing a dollar-for-dollar match when they’re outspent by privately funded opponents. With a ceiling on the amounts available, these funds make sure publicly funded candidates’ voices are not silenced by private money. More choices on the ballot gives voters a fighting chance to influence public policies.

Hawaii’s pilot fair elections program, modeled after Arizona’s law, is now under way on the Big Island for County Council elections. In 2008, when Act 244 passed, Hawaii became the ninth state in the country to enact some form of comprehensive public funding.

It’s imperative that Hawaii continues to lead in this arena of campaign finance reform. Voters in Hawaii were visionary in 1978 when we created the statewide partial public funding mechanism during the Constitutional Convention. Since then, however, the cost of elections has skyrocketed and the partial program no longer provides enough money to the candidates who use it. Additionally, those candidates still have to raise some private money, which perpetuates the conflicts of interest that arise between what’s best for the public versus campaign donors.

For the pilot program, 16 council candidates attempted to qualify, and those remaining have until Aug. 19 to turn in their 200 qualifying signatures. So far, the county clerk’s office and the state Campaign Spending Commission are managing the program successfully, and we can only expect it to get more efficient in the future.

The Big Island’s program, paid for with a voluntary $3 checkoff on state income tax forms, provides the best alternative to our outdated system, and needs to continue to expand. The fair elections system is helping shift a lawmaking arena that has effectively abandoned long-term, systemic problem-solving for short-term political gamesmanship.

AGAIN, our paradoxical energy policies provide insight: While we have the most abundant sources of cheap electricity imaginable, we simultaneously pay the highest rates. Coincidentally, between 2003 and 2005 alone, oil companies invested $696,402 in donations and lobbying expenditures in Hawaii.

When compounded by policies at the national level, this problem becomes even worse. In 2008, Congress voted against the Consumer First Energy Act (S. 3044), which would have revoked $17 billion in tax breaks that go to Big Oil, and added a 25 percent windfall tax on those oil companies that failed to invest in new energy sources.

The six Republicans who broke with their party by voting "yes" on the bill got an average of $64,362 from oil producers, while the rest of the 41 Republicans who voted "no" received an average of $134,719.

These patterns of money determining votes can be found in every problematic sector in our economy. For too long, the solutions to our most pressing problems have been sitting on shelves collecting dust. To take them off and put them to use, we first need to fix the system that put them there: We need a full public funding option for elections, and we can’t afford to wait any longer to have it.

Kory Payne is the executive director of Voter Owned Hawaii.


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