WASHINGTON — Building a new blood bank, growing fresh coral for Waikiki tourists and expanding the ability of an organic farm in Waianae to process more produce are just a few of the pet projects Hawaii congressmen Ed Case and Kai Kahele hope to secure funding for during this year’s federal budget negotiations.
Friday was the deadline for lawmakers to submit their earmark requests to the House Appropriations Committee, and more than 300 lawmakers on both sides of the aisle obliged to take part in the practice despite its complicated and, some might say, sordid past.
In total, Case and Kahale asked for $17.2 million in direct federal spending for nearly two dozen projects in Hawaii.
They also asked for $40 million in set asides for Hawaii in multiyear surface transportation legislation currently under consideration in Congress.
Among their requests are $1.5 million to rejuvenate the Big Island’s floriculture industry that suffered an estimated $30 million in damages after the 2018 Kilauea lava flow, $6.15 million for a bikeway that will allow cyclists to travel from Nanakuli to Aloha Stadium and $8 million to improve Waianuenue Avenue in Hilo.
The Blood Bank of Hawaii — the only provider for the islands’ 18 hospitals — would get $2.1 million to build a new facility in West Oahu after it was forced to relocate due to construction of Honolulu’s 20-mile passenger rail line.
Nearly $900,000 would be used to help MA’O Organic Farms in Waianae build a new processing plant to handle its increased produce output after expanding operation from 24 acres to 281 acres.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources would get $415,000 to boost coral production in the waters around Waikiki to entice tourists to snorkel in the area and help reduce the pressure placed on natural corals elsewhere.
Earmarks were banned in 2011 after a series of embarrassing disclosures and high profile scandals.
Among them was a $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” that would have connected the Alaskan town of Ketchikan — population 8,200 — to a nearby airport, and the arrest of Jack Abramoff, a high powered Washington lobbyist who was caught bribing public officials in exchange for political favors, including having earmarks directed to his clients.
The practice wasn’t all bad. Many have argued that earmarks led to more bipartisanship because it allowed for lawmakers to sweeten deals with colleagues who might not otherwise vote for specific policy proposals.
For Hawaii, earmarks were particularly lucrative, especially with the late-U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye in charge of the Senate Appropriations Committee. From 2008 to 2010, Inouye was responsible for more than 400 earmarks worth more than $1.2 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracked congressionally directed spending.
Inouye was so good at securing funds for Hawaii and other interests that he gave himself the nickname “King of Pork.”
Democrats, who are in control of the House and Senate, decided to bring back earmarks, but only if they included a number of provisions meant to increase transparency and accountability.
For instance, House rules state that no earmarks can be directed to for-profit entities. Members must also disclose on their websites how much money they’re requesting through the earmark process and where it will be directed.
Members must also certify that they and their immediate family do not have a financial interest in the projects they’re hoping to fund.
The Senate, too, will bring earmarks back into the fold after a decade-long hiatus. Similar to the House, senators will be required to provide more public disclosure about their requests, which have yet to be submitted.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said that while the abusive practices of the past were problematic he’s looking forward to a day when lawmakers can once again direct funds to projects that they know their communities need rather than relying on some bureaucrat based in Washington.
“What people didn’t like about earmarks was that there was a 10 year period in which there was a direct nexus between campaign contributions and federal funds flowing to private, for-profit companies,” Schatz said. “But in a broader sense an earmark, if done right, is simply a member of Congress, a member of the legislative branch exercising her or his constitutional prerogative to hold the purse strings.”
He likened the process to the same one the Hawaii Legislature goes through when it doles out grants in aid to local nonprofits. Most legislatures do not “forfeit” their power to direct spending, he said, and neither should Congress.
“I reject the idea that an official in Washington D.C., or the executive branch knows more about the needs of our community than I do,” Schatz said. “I just see no reason to give that authority away to an executive of either party.”
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