Neil Abercrombie made Brian Schatz his point man on obtaining federal money even before they were elected.

Heading up the administration’s Fair Share Initiative, the lieutenant governor says the initiative — intended to make Hawaii competitive in maximizing federal funds — has already identified $100 million, most of it for veteran services and the Hawaii National Guard.

The money is not yet in state coffers, and Schatz says he secured no new promises for federal funding from a business trip to Washington last week.

What Schatz did accomplish, he told Civil Beat in an interview Thursday, is to begin a process of developing relationships with key people — departments, Hawaii’s delegation, the White House — in D.C. that he believes will pay dividends for Hawaii down the road.

Schatz also explained why he met with a powerful lobbying group while in the nation’s capital, provided an update on federal funds for tsunami damage, opined on how the administration is doing locally on the budget and briefly touched on the 2012 Senate race.

$8.5M For Tsunami Help

First, the news.

Schatz, who met with the Federal Emergency Management Agency while in D.C., expressed optimism the state would receive $8.5 million to help repair state facilities like harbors damaged by the recent tsunami.

Schatz said it would be several weeks before Hawaii learns how much it will get, because the governor’s disaster declaration is still wending its way through the bureaucratic path to the White House.

Total damage from the tsunami currently totals about $30 million because of the extensive damage to Big Island stores and resorts.

Schatz noted that the U.S. Small Business Administration on Thursday opened a Disaster Loan Outreach Center in Kona, which will operate until April 21.

The SBA can offer loans with interest rates as low as 2-3 percent to help individuals, businesses and nonprofits make repairs.

“I expect Kona Village Resort will apply, if they are committed to the repairs — assuming that all the costs are not insured,” he said.

How’s the Administration Doing?

Not surprisingly, pretty good, according to Schatz — although it could do a better job explaining that to the Legislature.

Schatz served on the state House Finance Committee when he was in the Legislature, and now he’s on the other side of the government branch.

He described the budget process as “contentious by its architecture,” meaning that the governor is required to submit a budget and that the House and then the Senate go to work on it with everything ultimately (barring veto) settled in conference committee.

“It shouldn’t be surprising that we proposed a budget that the Legislature didn’t adopt instantaneously,” he said. “Nothing I’ve see so far in terms of any kinds of disagreement strikes me as particularly concerning. In fact, I have never seen such a collaborative relationship — the ability of legislators to call the fifth floor, for the governor to directly engage with legislators, is all a sign I think of the governor’s strength as a 40-year legislator. … The process is not designed so that his proposals are adopted by fiat.”

Responding to complaints from some lawmakers, Schatz did say the administration could do a better job of “articulating to the Legislature” how it is fulfilling Abercrombie’s promise to restructure government to make it work more efficiently.

“But we have been mostly focused on fixing the problem and not talking about it,” he said. “We have been focusing on governing a lot and now it’s time to get out the story.”

Lobbying for Tourism

Schatz was asked why he met with Prime Policy Group, a major D.C.-based lobbyist — an event that was not on his public schedule.

He responded that he was advised to do so by his boss; Abercrombie served in Congress with the group’s vice chairman, John Tanner.

The main topic of interest was travel and tourism, given Hawaii’s dependence on both and that Prime Policy Group’s list of clients includes businesses such as Marriott International.

“They were very interested to know what we were up to with respect to tourism general but also in particular in light of the tsunami, to know how we were handling it economically” he said, though he acknowledged that the meeting was scheduled long before the events of March 11.

The lieutenant governor, who was making his first official trip to Washington in his new capacity, said the lobbyists were also curious about how the Hawaii Tourism Authority operates, as Schatz put it, “a quasi-government agency, taxpayer funded.”

“I thought it was a great meeting in terms of reaching out to folks who normally wouldn’t have Hawaii on the map and are now aware of us, and if there is an opportunity for investment now know someone personally they can call,” he said.

Fair Share

According to Schatz, the Fair Share Initiative he leads is working with the Hawaii Department of Defense to secure more than $90 million dollars in federal funding for veteran services and the Hawaii National Guard — some of that “federal money” his boss talked up on the campaign trail.

The money, if it comes, will go to refurbishing the eight veteran cemeteries across the state, and for upgrades and improvements to our National Guard facilities and state armories. Schatz says it will bring jobs.

But the funds are included in federal defense and veterans’ affairs budgets, and at present the Republican-controlled U.S. House can’t agree with the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate and White House on getting more than a stop-gap budget passed.

“We are in challenging times, and I thing that it’s more important than ever for us to be competitive with respect to external funding, especially federal funding,” he said. “And what we had in the previous state administration was almost zero coordination with the congressional delegation and the Obama administration. … I can tell you for sure they weren’t working together. We are now working hand in glove with them, and tried to do that as much as possible during my week in Washington.”

Working with the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Schatz said the initiative is also working to get $13 million from the federal State Small Business Credit Initiative to help venture capital investment and tech programs through the University of Hawaii.

Schatz stressed the the $100-plus million are not earmarks — something that Washington, for now, backed off on granting. That means the money should eventually come Hawaii’s way, he said.

“The money has to be expended in the next two calendar years in construction, so those are going to be construction jobs, and of course our construction industry has been hit the hardest (by the economic downturn,” he said.

Senator Schatz?

The lieutenant governor said it was too early to talk about the 2012 race to win Daniel Akaka‘s seat.

“My view on this is that we ought to take some additional time to honor Sen. Akaka’s service,” he said. “I don’t think it is the time to talk about 2012 elections. We’ve got tremendous challenges locally and nationally, and we all need to pull together and try to solve those problems. Elections take care of themselves.”

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