Hawaii lawmakers have more money than ever to spend on incidentals like a lunch or a lei — or even a trip to Tahiti.

And spend it they do.

The state’s 25 senators are using their annual legislative allowances on a wide range of expenses that are supposed to be connected to their official duties, according to a Civil Beat review of the claims they have filed since 2012. (We’ll look at the 51 House members’ reports later this week.)

The bulk of the $10,200 lawmakers each received last year and $11,261 allowance they get for 2013 has gone toward big-ticket items like newsletters and end-of-session mailers to constituents.

Hawaii State Capitol with lawn

The brochures Sen. Michelle Kidani mailed out cost $6,484, the priciest single expense of anyone in the Senate. She spent all but $3.45 of her 2012 allowance and had used $9,630 of her 2013 allotment by September.

Most senators used virtually all of their allowance last year and are on track to do the same this year. In 2012, Sens. Glenn Wakai, Malama Solomon, Les Ihara, Carol Fukunaga and Kalani English maxed out.

Lawmakers swipe their taxpayer-funded credit cards frequently for food and refreshments. Thousands of dollars go toward feeding themselves, their staffs, constituents and others each year.

Minor expenses include parking receipts, business cards, pencils and lapel pins. All that stuff adds up quick.

Only a handful of senators don’t take full advantage of their allowance. Laura Thielen used just $923 of hers in 2012 and has only spent $2,033 in 2013, the lowest of any senator besides Sam Slom.

Slom, the Senate’s sole Republican, hasn’t spent a dime of his allowance since being elected in 1996. By his accounting, that has saved taxpayers $118,037.

Here are all the expenses state senators made using their legislative allowances from January 2012 to August 2013:

Incidentally Speaking, What’s Reasonable?

The Hawaii Constitution entitles state lawmakers to receive allowances “reasonably related to expenses as provided by law.”

State law says the annual allowances are to cover “incidental expenses connected with legislative duties.”

The Senate Administrative Manual prescribes a few more restrictions on how lawmakers can spend the money:

“Incidental expenses connected with legislative duties” shall include all expenditures incurred in connection with carrying out of official duties or in connection with representational activities the nature of which will assist the legislator in: (i) developing the legislator’s accessibility to, and communication with, the community and constituents concerning subjects of legislation and community concerns; (ii) educating the community and constituents on matters relating to the legislature, legislative process, and subjects of legislation; and (iii) carrying out the public’s expectations of a legislator’s role to the community and constituents.

That guidance seems to give lawmakers a lot of leeway in how they use the money.

It covers big expenses like Kalani English’s trip to Tahiti last year for an Asia-Pacific forum ($2,173) and Les Ihara’s travel to D.C. for a legislative summit ($3,227). And smaller expenses like garlic salt ($3) for Sen. Maile Shimabukuro and hand towels ($24.17) for Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz‘s office.

Sen. David Ige used his allowance to buy an area carpet for the kitchen ($24). Sen. Roz Baker bought personalized stationary ($528). And Sen. Will Espero bought gifts for Japanese orphans ($42).

Lawmakers will have more to spend next year when their legislative allowance increases again.

It’s a result of a Salary Commission recommendation. In 2005, lawmakers decided to tie their allowances to their salaries so whenever they get a pay raise, their allowances increase by the same percent.

Hawaii lawmakers’ salaries will increase to $55,896 this fiscal year, $9,600 more than 2012. This will take their allowance up to $12,753. When all 76 lawmakers are accounted for, it’s a nearly $1 million slice of the $12 billion state operating budget.

Prior to 2005, the Legislature could increase the allowances on its own. Lawmakers only did so a few times though. They took it from $750 in 1969 to $5,000 in 1987, according to Senate Clerk Carol Taniguchi.

Lawmakers survived off a $5,000 allowance until 2006, when they increased it to $7,500.

Below is a chart that shows how much each senator spent in 2012 and how much they’ve spent so far in 2013, including their biggest purchases and unscientific “most interesting” expenses.

Civil Beat staff

This infographic shows how Hawaii state senators spend their annual legislative allowances.

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