Want to know how much pork your Hawaii legislator brought home this session? Finding the answer is not easy.

Unlike tracking a legislator’s bills and resolutions, or seeing how they voted, details on capital improvement projects (aka CIPs) are hard to come by.

Civil Beat has tried to determine which lawmakers benefit most from the $2.9 billion in CIP money that will be spent over the next two fiscal years.

We spent the better part of a week trying to connect 431 different CIP line items with lawmakers and their districts. Our intent was to take a comprehensive look at where money was spent in districts. But we found that we could only produce a limited picture.

We began by comparing the text of the budget bill against that of individual request bills introduced by lawmakers.

But because the language in the budget document is not always identical to a lawmaker’s request, making comparisons is problematic. The “Kona Courthouse” in one document is referenced as the “Kona Judiciary Complex” in another, for example.

Also, Civil Beat was told that the lawmakers’ request bills aren’t the true basis of the final CIP list. That is drawn from internal memos that are not publicly available.

We’ve reached out to Senate Ways and Means and House Finance — but they don’t have easy answers for member of the public.

Yet, shouldn’t constituents know how much their lawmakers bring home?

Key Documents Are Secret

The request bills introduced by lawmakers are largely for show and never get a hearing. The real way to find out who made what request is to look at CIP memos and letters to leadership.

Civil Beat has requested those documents from both chambers. But under state law, the Legislature is not required to turn them over.

When we reported in March on CIP requests in the House at the crossover point of session — a story that revealed supporters of Speaker Calvin Say fared better than House dissidents in getting their requests — we used a list compiled by House Finance that came from those internal documents.

Civil Beat had obtained a copy and confirmed its authenticity with House Finance. Chair Marcus Oshiro then made available an electronic version of the list so that we could analyze the CIPs.

Big Isle Moolah

It’s clear that lawmakers are happy to tell their constituents what they’ve done when it comes to securing CIPs.

Consider the current examples of the three senators who represent Hawaii County: Gil Kahele, Malama Solomon and Josh Green.

We selected Kahele and Solomon because they scheduled public meetings this week to talk about the session, including CIPs, and Green because we had spoken to him about his projects.

Kahele, a freshman appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to fill a vacant seat, says in his legislative recap that he secured $12.1 million in CIPs for his District 2. That includes money for relocating the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences and for a new cafeteria at Pahoa Elementary School.

The Senate Caucus issued a press release this week that said Solomon’s District 1 will receive $125 million in CIPs, including for improvements to the Lower Hamakua Ditch System and a new full service kitchen in Keaukaha Elementary School cafeteria.

Green, meanwhile, has posted on his website that his District 3 will receive more than $30 million in funding for projects including upgrades for Kona Community Hospital and for improvements to Queen Kaahumanu Highway.

For the average citizen, verifying these claims is difficult.

While each of the six capital improvement projects named above are indeed in the conference draft 1 of the state budget approved by the Legislature, there is nothing to connect the state senators to them.

In Kahele’s case, for example, of the seven projects that he takes credit for in his legislative recap, only three were listed in the bill he introduced to identify his requests.

In Solomon’s case, she did indeed make a CIP request for the Keaukaha Elementary in a bill she introduced. In her press release, the funding is explained this way: “This includes $8 million in CIPs that has now been released by Gov. Abercrombie to build a new full service kitchen in Keaukaha Elementary School cafeteria as part of his administration’s New Day Work Projects to accelerate Hawai’i’s economic recovery by decreasing unemployment and jumpstarting business activity.”

What’s tricky here is that the money for Keaukaha Elementary was appropriated in the 2010-2011 biennial budget, passed before Solomon returned to the Legislature (she too was appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy).

As for Green, his request bill did include the hospital and other projects. However, improvements for roads in his district weren’t mentioned in that bill and were likely part of the administration’s plans for highways statewide.

The Bottom Line

Civil Beat believes the public benefits by knowing where its tax dollars are going — and who made the decision to send them there.

But the reality is that that the legislative process, as it stands now, doesn’t make that easy.

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