HONOLULU (KHON2) — Lawmakers have raked in millions from fundraisers held during legislative sessions. A bill up for hearing Tuesday, Feb. 22 would put a stop to it.
Bills trying to get this done for at least 15 years have never made the final cut in the state legislature. Lawmakers and political experts tell me this time it’s a new ballgame after bribery scandals rocked the capitol.
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Hawaii’s lawmakers aren’t shy about asking for political donations while they’re in legislative session. Always Investigating found nearly 450 fundraising events have been held over the past decade while state senators and representatives were busy at the Capitol weighing bills and taking votes.
“We are one of only 18 states that still allows this to go on,” said Dr. John Hart, KHON2’s political analyst and a professor of communications at Hawaii Pacific University. “The vast majority of states have stopped this a long time ago, so it’s really surprising we still have it.”
It’s not for lack of trying, with bill after bill going in the hopper and usually dying after a hearing or two at best.
“You don’t want unscrupulous committee chairs to say, okay, your bill’s not going to move forward, unless you give me a campaign contribution at my fundraiser, which is on such-a-such a date,” said Sen. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Most people and the vast majority of chairs, they follow the law very carefully. But, you know, removing temptation is an important thing to do as well. The atmospherics of it are just as important. And it just looks bad. We’re in session, we’re moving bills, and then we have a fundraiser right in the middle of it.”
A carryover measure that stalled in 2021 is revived for a hearing tomorrow in Rhoads’ Judiciary Committee. The measure, SB555 SD 1 Proposed, would prohibit sitting state lawmakers from holding a fundraiser during any regular session or special session.
“This would be a major cultural a major political, cultural change,” Rhoads said. “For decades, it’s a rite of spring that you have your fundraiser sometime during the session.”
Rhoads doesn’t hold money events during session, but nearly 100 lawmakers have in the decade of data Always Investigating reviewed. Those holding the most are some of the senior lawmakers: Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz is in the top spot with 15 events held in-session since 2013; second is Sen. Michelle Kidani with 13; third Rep. John Mizuno with 12. Rep. Sylvia Luke and former Sen. Kalani English tie at fourth with 11 apiece. Ninety other lawmakers held hundreds more events during session.
Just the top five raised nearly $1.5 million between them. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Dela Cruz received $536,348 on dates that fall during legislative sessions since 2013; House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke $361,432; Senate Vice President and Education Committee Chairwoman Kidani $267,853; and Mizuno raised $79,270. English, who resigned last year and was caught in a bribery scheme, raised $218,516 legally in-session between 2013-2022.
“What I think we should do what we can do, is be sure that the process, the legislative calendar, and fundraisers are separate, delinked, decoupled,” Rhoads said. “Right now having a fundraiser during session is perfectly legal.”
But what English and former Rep. Ty Cullen pled guilty to — cash and gift bribes to influence legislation — was not. Experts say their actions, however, will help turn the tide against outright asking for legal donations while doing the people’s work.
“This, obviously, is the opportune time to do something,” Hart said. “The optics are terrible. I think the Hawaii legislature has to act. It’s a question of what they will do.”
The top lawmakers in dollar-volume of in-session funds raised tell Always Investigating they’re backing the bill.
“I support this measure,” Dela Cruz said.
“I have tried to taper off the fundraisers during session in recent years,” said Luke. The Campaign Spending Commission shows her last in-session fundraiser event notification was in 2020. “I recognize this is an issue that is important to the public and I am glad that the measure is coming up for a hearing. I would support it with my vote.”
“Given the severity of the events that have transpired regarding two former legislators, all measures to increase transparency and accountability should be considered,” Kidani said. “I look forward to engaging with my senate colleagues and the public on this matter.”
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