Saturday, February 09, 2008
Can one buy Access? Only $100 may do it
I am not, I repeat, not, picking on Rep. Bob Herkes. It's just that he gives me such great opportunities to talk about legislative reform.
You may recall that a couple of sessions ago, he harbored an "embedded lobbyist" in his office as an intern. The intern wasn't a college student learning how government works. He was the Executive Administrator of HMSA Foundation. That same session saw the end of health care premium rate regulation in Hawaii. The biggest beneficiary, of course, was HMSA. Not that I would imply anything of course, but the very next session saw rule changes to banish corporate "interns" from legislators' offices.
HMSA was not the only corporate presence at the Legislature. HECO people were sighted and the occasional union-busting attorney too.
Even the governor started using the term "embedded lobbyist," so you see what I mean about the great opportunities I've been given to talk about legislative reform.
Back to Bob in a little bit. First this message from my inner sponsor.
Campaign Finance Reform
Why states regulate money in elections
A successful election campaign depends on communication, and communication costs money. However, it is believed by some that money has the potential to corrupt a candidate, to drive him or her to serve their own interests rather than the public good. For instance, there is a belief that an unusually large financial contribution could influence the voting behavior of an elected official. Campaign finance laws are intended to reduce the potential for corruption, or even the appearance of corruption. [National Conference of State Legislatures]
Reducing corporate influence in Hawaii's state legislature
It isn't easy. It's like trying to take candy away from children. They get stubborn, they grab harder, they can get nasty.
If we want our elected officials to act as public servants, what changes are needed?
There are several things that could be done. Among them are:
- Reduce or eliminate corporate contributions—all but five states regulate corporate contributions, 23 states have limits on the amounts corporations may contribute, and 22 states have an outright ban on corporate contributions.
- Elliminate fundraising during session
- Require monthly reports for any monies received (in real time, on the web. It's not rocket science)
This session lawmakers are trying to remove limits that separate them from their lucre. HB2455 and SB3141 are their vehicles for doing that. If there's no huge outcry, you can bet they'll pass these bills, taking a giant step backwards on the first reform point. Public be damned, they want to pass those bills.
Back to Bob
(Or actually, to an ad run in the newspaper by his "Friends of" committee.)
A pet peeve among reform advocates is the holding of fundraisers during the legislative session. Though corporate contributions may be problematic at any time, there's just something about passing the hat while considering and voting on measures that can directly affect a company's profits. Several Hawaii lawmakers don't mind doing this, though.
Committee chairs have awesome power in Hawaii's legislature—they can hold or defer (that is "kill") a bill for example, or they can introduce amendments essentially written by the industry affected. They can essentially direct a vote by compliant members of their committees. This is anti-democratic and should be changed, but for now, they wield this kind of power.
You might think that these powerful legislators in particular would refrain from shilling for donations during session. You would be wrong.
I've asked about it, and answers vary very little. One answer is that it shouldn't matter whether fundraising takes place at any particular time, it takes place anyway. Another common answer is that donations received during session don't buy any extra access or influence decisions.
Right at the top it says "Breakfast with Bob." It doesn't say "Fundraiser for Bob" or anything like that. Farther down you'll find "$100.00 Donation." $100.00 is a very precise figure.
Putting the two together, one might conclude from this example that if you have $100 and donate it, you can get access to a legislator, at least for breakfast maybe. Some people may try that out. It could seem like a reasonable offer, as they read it.
Someone like Bill Clinton might argue that we need to settle the meaning of the word "with."
Indeed, maybe a legislator just sits at the head of the table and talks to no one, or addresses the diners as a group. Nevertheless, an ad like this might give the appearance of access, mightn't it? Like I said, I'm implying nothing, this is just such a great example to work with. This ad, like most all of them, is placed not by the legislator but by a "Friends of" committee.
In Honolulu, anyway, it seems to me that most fundraisers suggest a $25 donation. There is food, often music, and at most an opportunity to shake the legislator's hand on the way in. Even for the 25 bucks I'd say that a fundraiser during session raises more than eyebrows. And of course, there's nothing limiting a really dedicated and generous special interest representative from stuffing more than that amount in the envelope.
The third reform point above would mean that we could at least find out, during session, how much money is being handed over to whom. I'd like to know. Why? Well, continuing with this example, just look at the hearing notice for the day after this breakfast.
A contentious tort reform bill was scheduled, a bill that has been the subject of fierce lobbying. There were also several bills related to condominiums. There was a bill that could increase ATM access fees. I wonder if any of the folks involved were in need of breakfast on Tuesday? Curious minds want to know. Again, I imply nothing, but you see what thoughts can arise in the mind of a typical advocate around the practice of holding fundraisers during session. Many important bills come before a legislative committee and their sponsors could interpret an ad worded like this one as an opportunity they shouldn't pass up.
I think it's fair to check the hearing notice for any legislator who holds fundraisers during session. It's public information, available to us to interpret and speculate upon.
Look, as an ordinary (non-corporate) person, I just don't have an extra $100 to go speak with this or any other legislator.
I doubt somehow that Bob would be willing to speak with me even if I had the money to give.
The reason so many fundraisers are $25 or less is because if you advertise more than $25, you have to register it with the Campaign Spending Commission and you can only hold two per election period.
Two things will be of interest here. First, Herkes people were required to have a "sign in" lits of everyone that attended. Second, Herkes donors will not show up until July 31, 2008 when the report for this campaign spending commission period will be due.
Whats most interesting, from my perspective, is that Herkes thinks that $100 is enough per person and that this was the best time to do it. I would have done it today before the first lateral, that's the way to sweat the lobbyists.
Thanks for that bit of information. I just sent in testimony against the medical malpractice bill (HB 1992).I guess if enough doctors and health care providers attend the breakfast Herkes will pass the bill. That's unfortunate. Josephine