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How Hawaii Government Can Work Again

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I hear so much worry and hand wringing over the Citizen's United Supreme Court decision, which, simply put, said that laws could not limit the amounts of money used to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. So rich people and big corporations, "Have at it!," says the highest court in the land.

Reality check: The day before the Citizens United decision came down, rich people and corporations were still calling the shots. I worked in Congress on both the House and Senate sides, and it was clear as all day. For example, I saw the auto companies dole out a lot of campaign contributions in order to exempt trucks from the fuel efficiency standards knowing full well they would turn around and market the trucks to make money selling gas guzzling trucks instead of less gas guzzling cars. In a matter of years everyone would want a truck, or think they needed one. When I was a kid you could be made fun of if you were dropped off for school in a truck. Then rappers and movie stars were driving decked out Lincoln and Cadillac trucks on ads in print and TV. Then everyone in New Jersey -- the state with the best roads and snow removal -- all felt they needed four-wheel drive luxury gas guzzling, pollution spewing trucks. That's just one example out of oh-so-many.

So calls to go back to the good old bad days of regulating donation amounts, and increasing disclosure laws just leave me shaking my head. We are surely all doomed to dysfunctional government for time immemorial if that is what the big solution is to Citizens United.

What Citizens United did do however, was create a well-known brand for public corruption. The public now is much clearer on how bad things have actually gotten. What was missing from the "good government" movements was the ability to educate and organize the vast public on what is essentially legalized bribery.

Arizona, Maine, Connecticut, NYC, and the Big Island -- to name a few places, have publicly funded elections. Generally, the way it works is that a certain sizable number of small donations are obtained by a candidate. Then those donations are matched by the government at some significant ratio -5 to 1, 7 to 1, or whatever. Candidates spend more time listening to their constituents than high-powered well-financed lobbyists. Also, you no longer have to be rich, or know rich people, to get elected. That opens the door to teachers, social workers, community organizers, single moms, small business owners, etc. The 99 percent.

It's a brand new day when this happens. You get a whole new slate of policies getting their fair hearing on the legislative agenda. The decisions are being made in the interest of the vast majority of people instead of the same few rich and powerful folks who call the shots no matter who is in office.

And folks, the time is now. It is an urgent moment is history. The climate crisis is not being addressed due to coal, oil, nuclear, and big ag money -- to name a few. The cost of college is tripling in one generation. Millions of unemployed people are getting their unemployment benefits cut, their food stamps cut, their job training cut, and their grants and loans to go back to college cut. All in the name of cutting the deficit to keep taxes low for the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.

In the meantime, here in Hawaii there is one single lonely little bill to have a study done to recommend legislation to implement public funding more broadly, all while funding for the one voter owned election pilot project on the Big Island is gone. There is no sign the program will be injected with funds anytime soon. Sadly, that bill cannot even get a hearing. Meanwhile, various brave and admirable movements are fighting battles in eventual losing wars to do things like stopping developers from paving over the state, stopping Monsanto from making Hawaii farmers enslaved just to pay for their seed and pesticides, stopping hedge funds from converting hotels into condos thereby leaving thousands of unemployed workers in their wake... Just to name a few Hawaii struggles.

Voter owned elections is not a panacea. There will be more work to be done, but it is the baseline for action, if the government is ever going to represent the vast majority of people. It is, after all called, democracy -- not oligarchy.