June 28th, 2011

Publicly financed candidates for Hawaii County Council will likely no longer be eligible for extra money to compete against big-spending opponents after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday struck down a similar law in Arizona.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, held that an Arizona law which provided publicly funded candidates with matching funds to compete against privately financed candidates and independent interest groups “substantially burdens political speech” protected by the First Amendment.

A Hawaii County pilot project offers similar equalizing funds to publicly financed candidates who are outspent by privately financed opponents, a provision modeled after the Arizona law.

“We believe it’s going to impact the program,” said Kristin Izumi-Nitao, the executive director of the state Campaign Spending Commission, which oversees the pilot project.

The pilot project was approved by the state Legislature in 2008 to test the viability of publicly financed political campaigns over three county council election cycles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

Eight council candidates received about $150,000 in public funding under the project in 2010 and four were elected – three incumbents and one newcomer. None of the candidates received any equalizing funds because their opponents did not reach the threshold.

Kory Payne, the executive director of Voter Owned Hawaii, which supports public financing for candidates, said a majority on the Supreme Court appears intent on giving the wealthy an even greater influence in politics.

He said the court’s decision Monday — in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett – was in the same vein as the court’s ruling last year – in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission – that allowed unlimited independent political spending by corporations.

“Wealthy elites and people who have access to more capital are going to have more “speech” than average Americans,” Payne said.

Voter Owned Hawaii, Common Cause Hawaii and other interest groups will ask state lawmakers next year to amend the pilot project to respond to the court’s ruling. A bill that stalled in committee this year would have given publicly financed candidates a 4 to 1 match on small donations to help them compete against privately financed opponents, an adjustment that may not have the constitutional risk of equalizing funds.

“I don’t see why they would not pass” the bill next year, Payne said of House and Senate leaders.

But the Campaign Spending Commission is concerned that the bill has no trigger for publicly financed candidates to demonstrate that they need the 4 to 1 match to compete, so candidates could stockpile public funds.

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