A panel of state lawmakers spent the better part of a day last March listening to Hawaii nonprofits and others take advantage of the three minutes they were each allotted to make their case for government grant money.

Silence ensued for the next six weeks and then a list of winners — a sliver of those who had applied — was announced without explanation as to why some charities were selected over others.

More than 280 groups asked for a total of nearly $190 million from the state for fiscal year 2016, which starts July 1. They wanted money for everything from restoring Maunalua Bay and building a community kitchen at a charter school in Kona to programs providing free tax assistance and vocational training for poor women.

Rep Ty Cullen. 30 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rep. Ty Cullen, seen here during a legislative hearing last week, handled grants-in-aid for the House.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The informational briefing March 20 was the only public meeting on grants-in-aid. The rest of the decision-making process happened behind closed doors, just as it has for years in the Legislature.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda approved the final list of grants-in-aid last week after finishing their work on the overall state budget.

The process involves the heads of nonprofits and others, including hired lobbyists, privately urging lawmakers to approve their grant request over others. Sometimes the lobbying comes from legislators themselves.

The list was boiled down to 56 groups receiving $8 million in operating grants and 35 organizations getting $20 million for capital improvement projects.

There are no clear guidelines or criteria by which the decisions are made, nor opportunity for the public or even the applicants to track the process. There’s no separate grants-in-aid bill or other legislative vehicle that would provide for open hearings so people could see how their elected officials are whittling the GIA list and weigh in on how they think their taxpayer dollars should be spent.

“The main thing is too many people now see this as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and they line up and they tell other people, people that are starting businesses or starting nonprofits, ‘Hey, you can get the money down there, you just have to do a good lobbying job or you have to know somebody,’” Sen. Sam Slom said in an interview earlier this week.

Rep. Ty Cullen was tasked with sifting through the applications and preparing a final list for Luke to consider this session. On the Senate side, Tokuda handled the operating grants and Sen. Ron Kouchi handled the CIP grants.

Cullen did not respond to requests seeking comment. 

He said in a House news release announcing the grants last week that it was “tough to make a decision from the many worthwhile requests.”

“Fortunately, the House and Senate were able to put together just over $28 million to support our local community and service groups, who assist a wide range of individuals within our community and are an integral part of our social safety net providing essential services for our state,” he said in the release.

Senate Ways and Means committee Chair Senator JIll Tokuda gestures during hearing. 1 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda, seen here during an April 1 legislative meeting, handled grants-in-aid for the Senate with Ron Kouchi, left.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tokuda was well aware of the concerns over the lack of transparency in the process.

“We’ve been struggling with that for years,” she said, adding that she may take the issue up after the session and explore ways to revise the procedure. The legislative session ends Thursday and resumes in January.

“I wouldn’t mind trying to figure out a little more about what can be done,” Tokuda said. “Maybe it’s sitting down and having a roundtable with the nonprofits and listen to their suggestions.”

“People have learned in this community that things are done politically and it’s who you know rather than what you know. That’s unfortunate.” — Sen. Sam Slom

She has already met with the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations, headed by Lisa Maruyama, and implemented a couple of changes to the application process this session.

Tokuda said she added two questions that applicants had to answer when applying for the grants back in January. One was a sustainability question, the other was a requirement that the groups show proof that they are registered to do business in Hawaii.

The latter had become an issue because the Legislature would award a grant to a nonprofit but the executive branch would be unable to release the money because the group was based on the mainland. That’s funding that could have gone to a different organization that year.

The sustainability question asked what the nonprofit would do if it didn’t receive the grant and what it would do the following year if it did get the money.

“The idea being that this cannot be lifeline funding,” Tokuda said. “You have to be able to sustain yourself without the funding and beyond this funding. If you cannot, there’s an issue. We’re doing you an injustice if this is the sole funding that you need now and ongoing into the future.”

‘No Clear Process’

Lawmakers said they see grants-in-aid as “seed money” that the state can provide to help a group deliver services more efficiently and less expensively. The grants also help nonprofits and others leverage private, county and federal funds.

But lobbyists, nonprofit presidents and even legislators say they remain dissatisfied with the process, which they called “mysterious” and “political.”

While some improvements have been made over the years, such as posting the applications online, the Legislature has ignored calls to create an outside body to review and recommend what grants should be approved.

The city of Honolulu has an independent commission that vets the applications but even that has been subject to political infighting between the Mayor’s Office and City Council. Voters created Honolulu’s grants-in-aid program in 2012, which calls for setting aside 0.5 percent of the city’s general fund revenues for charities and nonprofits.

Senator Sam Slom gestures while questioning Mayor Kirk Caldwell at Ways and Means meeting at the Capitol room #211.  4 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Sam Slom at a meeting in March. He says it’s unfortunate the grants-in-aid process is so political.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Another issue with the state process is it’s a moving target. Maruyama said the process changes from year to year, leaving nonprofits unsure of how they can get involved.

The lawmakers designated by the House and Senate money committee chairs to handle grants-in-aid often change from one session to the next, making it hard to know who to lobby. Even some lawmakers interviewed last week were unsure who handled the grants-in-aid list this year.

“It behooves the nonprofits to definitely meet with that contact about the merits of their application,” Maruyama said.

The process involves the heads of nonprofits and others, including hired lobbyists, privately urging lawmakers to approve their grant request over others. Sometimes the lobbying comes from legislators themselves.

“People have learned in this community that things are done politically and it’s who you know rather than what you know,” Slom said. “That’s unfortunate.”

Connections Help

The Estria Foundation was awarded all $226,500 it requested for next year. Its advisory board includes Sen. Will Espero and Rep. Della Au Belatti. Espero also serves on the group’s “Fundraising Cabinet.”

Founded in 2010, Estria creates art in public spaces throughout the world and works to empower local communities, according to its website. The organization completed a mural of Queen Liliuokalani in 2011.

The Legislature has ignored calls to create an outside body to review and recommend what grants should be approved.

Espero said he’s a friend of Estria and a strong supporter of culture and the arts. He said “there is no clear process” for grants-in-aid though, and that it’s something the Legislature should look at.

Lawmakers are quick to let their constituents know what grants they were able to secure for them.

Sens. Roz Baker, Gil Keith-Agaran and Kalani English announced by press release last month that Maui County residents will have improved health care facilities in Hana, a community center in Paia and a park for Kalamaula Homesteaders on Molokai.

“These projects are not just dollars spent to address the needs of the community right now, but also will benefit future generations on Maui,” Baker said.

Delays Common After Approvals

Issues continue to arise after the awards are made, Maruyama said.

The grants get rolled into the overall state spending plan and become earmarked items in departmental budgets.

While roughly 13 percent of grant applications got a legislative OK this year, that doesn’t mean Gov. David Ige will release the money. Or that the grants his administration supports will receive their funding in a timely manner.

“There are numerous complaints from nonprofits about delays in payments,” Maruyama said, noting how that can put other funding sources in jeopardy.

“I would rather have private entities that have the experience and the know-how dispense funds because they can do it more efficiently and usually more quickly than the state,” Slom said. “However, we have seen in recent years scams within organizations. We’ve seen a lot of money that actually goes to salaries and personal benefits. So I think we need to tighten up the process and do a better job.”

Below is a list of operating and CIP grants-in-aid that were approved for 2016. View the applications of all the groups that applied and details of each request here.

Organization FY16 Award
National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii $2,000,000
Honolulu Academy of Arts $1,500,000
Ola Ka Ilima Arts Center $1,500,000
Pacific American Foundation Hawaii $1,500,000
The Friends of Iolani Palace $1,500,000
Friens of Kona Pacific Public Charter School $1,200,000
Goodwill Industries of Hawaii $1,000,000
Hawaii Public Television Foundation $1,000,000
Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council $800,000
Hawaii Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation $608,000
Maui Youth and Family Services $525,000
Kauai Economic Opportunity Incorporated $513,559
Hana Health $500,000
Kalamaula Homesteaders Association $500,000
Kapolei Community Development Corporation $500,000
Kauai Economic Development Board $500,000
Polynesian Voyaging Society $500,000
St. Francis Healthcare Foundation of Hawaii $500,000
Waimanalo Health Center $500,000
Diamond Head Theatre $450,000
Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific $437,500
Easter Seals Hawaii $418,364
Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation $350,000
Hawaii Agricultural Foundation $325,000
Kailapa Community Association $315,000
Heritage Hall $300,000
Ho’okupa’a $300,000
Young Women’s Christian Center $300,000
Friends of the Volcano School of Arts & Sciences $285,000
Leilehua Alumni and Community Association $250,000
The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii $250,000
The Estria Foundation $226,500
Honolulu Community Action Program $222,974
Hale Mahaolu $200,000
Kamalapua O Koolau $200,000
Lanakila Pacific $200,000
Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor $200,000
Read To Me International Foundation $200,000
Big Island Substance Abuse Council $187,045
Kualoa-Heeia Ecumenical Youth Project $186,000
Oahu Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals $185,000
Ko’olauloa Community Health and Wellness Center $180,000
Hawaii Homeownership Center $175,000
Kauai Economic Opportunity $156,765
Project Vision Hawaii $155,770
Bishop Museum $150,000
Hui Malama Learning Center $150,000
Panaewa Community Alliance $150,000
The Children’s Alliance of Hawaii $150,000
Worknet $150,000
Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council $147,735
Hawaii United Okinawa Association $140,000
Moanalua Gardens Foundation $125,000
Kauai Planning & Action Alliance $123,203
Kauai Food Bank $120,422
Waimanalo Market Co-op $102,500
Bikeshare Hawaii $100,000
Catholic Charities Hawaii $100,000
Ethnic Education Foundation of Hawaii $100,000
Family Programs Hawaii $100,000
Hawaii Wildlife Center $100,000
Hospice of Hilo $100,000
Life Foundation $100,000
Malama Maunalua $100,000
Nisei Veterans Legacy Center $100,000
Touch A Heart $100,000
Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders $95,000
Hawaii Alliance for Community-Based Economic Development $95,000
Friends of the Children’s Justice Center of Oahu $90,000
Ho’omana $87,400
Partners in Development Foundation $80,000
Hawaii Youth Symphony Association $75,000
Hugs for Hawaii’s Seriously Ill Children & Their Families $75,000
North Kohala Community Resource Center $75,000
Oahu Veterans Council $75,000
Hawaii Public Charter Schools Network $68,000
Mental Health Assocation of Hawaii $66,735
Oahu Resource Conservation and Development Council $64,800
Family Promise of Hawaii $55,082
Pacific Tsunami Museum $55,000
Waikiki Community Center $55,000
Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts $50,000
Hawaii Korean Chamber of Commerce $50,000
Hawaii Performing Arts Company $50,000
Moiliili Community Center $50,000
Supporting the Language of Kauai $50,000
The Filipino Community Center $50,000
Winners At Work $43,352
Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii $35,000
Hawaii Nature Center $31,400
Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence $26,000
Total $27,859,106

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