Two first-time Maui political hopefuls are among the few Hawaii candidates to so far tap into the state's public funding program that matches dollar-for-dollar campaign contributions of $100 or less.
The money for the program comes through the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which is mostly filled by taxpayers who check off on their state income tax returns to have $3 go to the fund. The idea is to encourage grass-roots campaigning and help level the playing field for candidates.
The public funding program has provided more than $4 million in matching contributions since it launched in 1980.
Don Guzman - who is running for the nonpartisan Maui County Council Kahului residency seat - has received a little more than $6,300 in public matching funds so far.
Kaniela Ing - a Democrat who is running for state House District 11 representing South Maui - has received about $1,900 in matching funds.
Both candidates say the program's grass-roots approach appealed to them.
"Corporate and special interests have a stronghold on the politics here, and I've decided not to take those big checks," Ing said. "This helps candidates that want to better represent the people actually compete with those who rely on money from special interests."
Guzman's campaign co-manager Neldon Mamuad added: "Coming in as a first-time campaign, we feel the grass-roots level is where we should be. The program is designed for people like us to try to get our message across."
To participate in the public funding program, candidates must have an opponent. Participants also need to agree to campaign expenditure limits that vary by race, which sometimes can deter participation by those in competitive races.
The maximum amount of matching funds available to candidates is calculated based on the number of registered voters in their districts in the last general election.
Since Maui County Council races are at-large islandwide seats, calculating public funding amounts and expenditure limits for those candidates is based on total Maui registered voters.
The amounts per candidate for Maui County Council races:
* $100,810 expenditure cap
* Up to $15,121 in public funds for primary, $15,121 for general
The amounts per candidate for Ing's House District 11 race:
* $16,199 expenditure cap
* Up to $2,430 in public funds for primary, $2,430 for general
Both campaigns said they think the expenditure limits are fair.
"The limits are in line with the spirit and intent of the program. That's the premise," Mamuad said.
Ing added: "I think they're fair, and I think they're important because people are already outspending people."
To begin applying for matching funds, candidates must collect a minimum number of "qualifying" montary contributions of $100 or less from Hawaii residents.
The minimum qualifying contribution amounts are:
* $5,000 for Maui County Council races
* $2,500 for state Senate races
* $1,500 for state House races
* $1,500 for Office of Hawaiian Affairs races
Ing said he received most of his qualifying contributions while canvassing his South Maui district, knocking on some 5,000 doors.
"That's how most checks came in," he said. "People would write me a check on the spot."
Mamuad said Guzman kicked off his campaign last fall with an event, which helped launch the effort to collect the needed qualifying contributions.
Once a candidate hits the minimum, he or she can continue to apply for matching funds for qualifying contributions up to the max allowed.
Out of the 292 candidates running for state and county offices statewide this year, 131 filed affidavits agreeing to expenditure limits for the public funding program, according to the state Campaign Spending Commission.
All but one of the 16 candidates running for Maui County Council this year have opted into the program, including six incumbents.
Don Couch is not participating in the program yet but said Sunday that he is looking at joining later this election cycle.
Couch, who holds the South Maui residency seat, said he did not participate in the program in 2010 because there were certain criteria in the program that he did not want to adhere to. He did not specify the criteria.
Seven Maui candidates running for state legislative seats have also opted in the program (none are incumbents).
So far, only Guzman, Ing and a candidate for a Big Island state House seat have received checks.
Incumbent Maui County Council member Mike Victorino is expected to receive a check soon. He's reported collecting about $9,900 in qualifying contributions.
Victorino also received about $6,100 in public matching funds for his 2010 general election campaign.
The state Campaign Spending Commission says it's still early in the game, and more candidates are expected to apply for funds up until the Aug. 11 deadline to collect qualifying contributions for primary election campaigns. The cutoff for the general election is Nov. 6.
The commission also said some candidates opt into the program only for the substantial discounted filing fee that comes with it - $25 instead of $250.
For the 2010 elections, 22 candidates statewide received public matching funds totaling more than $188,000.
Ing said he plans to use his check for a campaign mailer and advertising.
Guzman's campaign plans to use the matching funds for startup costs, T-shirts, ads and marketing. "This being an open race, any help is good help," Mamuad said.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.