For the first time since the pandemic began, hundreds of nonprofit organizations will get a chance to access state-funded grants awarded by the Legislature.

The Legislature last awarded grants in 2019. Hearings to consider grant awards in 2020 were cancelled after the State Capitol closed as the Covid-19 pandemic spread in Hawaii. Lawmakers didn’t accept grant applications in 2021 over budget concerns brought on by the pandemic.

But the state’s budget picture is much better this year, with lawmakers expected to have $1.3 billion more to spend than initially anticipated in December, before the start of the legislative session.

Organizations requesting Legislature Grants in Aid line up at the podium to request funds from the legislators.
The Legislature last awarded grants-in-aid in 2019. This year’s grant hearing will be virtual. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

On Monday, members of the House and Senate are expected to hear from more than 300 applicants requesting millions of dollars in aid. But only a handful will receive grants. The pot is expected to total about $30 million this year.

Representatives from applicant groups will get just 2 minutes to make their pitches to lawmakers. All were required to submit applications in January, explaining how they might use those funds. Requests include applications for funds to restore a historic church on Maui and money to pay for programs for families and seniors at a community center in Moiliili.

Although the State Capitol is now open to the public, the hearing on Monday will be held virtually. Past hearings were held in the auditorium in the Capitol basement.

“There’s normally hundreds of people that come at once,” said Rep. Scott Nishimoto, who is reviewing grant applications for the House. “We don’t want to put hundreds of people in the auditorium at once.”

Nishimoto said the Legislature is planning to set aside about $10 million in operating grants and $20 million for capital improvement requests. In 2019, the Legislature awarded more than 80 organizations a combined $10.5 million in operating grants and financed capital projects for 75 organizations at a total cost of $19.6 million in bond financing.

The virtual hearing could help neighbor island applicants. Prior to the pandemic, the Legislature did not allow virtual testimony, meaning anyone who wanted to testify needed to show up in person on Oahu.

Jill Tokuda, who was chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee between 2015 and 2017 before leaving the Legislature in 2018, would host additional hearings on the neighbor islands for those who could not make it to the Capitol building.

She said she is happy to see that virtual hearings could help ease financial burdens for neighbor island applicants but thinks there is more lawmakers could do to make the process more transparent.

Leaders of organizations asking for grants and some lawmakers said in past years that the grant awarding process can appear secretive and mysterious.

Grants in Aid Rep Scott Nishimoto listens to requests during hearing.
Rep. Scott Nishimoto will oversee the grant hearing for the House. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Nonprofits have previously asked for more information on the metrics lawmakers use to evaluate applications, Tokuda said. Measures that would have required the Legislature to publicly announce its decision-making criteria failed in past sessions.

House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said legislators should not be allowed to serve on boards of organizations applying for grants.

“We don’t want there to be any perception of that type of relationship,” Luke said. “I think we’d discourage that.”

Last year, the Senate considered a bill that would have disqualified an organization from receiving grants if a legislator served on its governing board. The Senate Ways and Means Committee deferred the measure and it was not revived this year.

Lisa Maruyama, president of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations, said there could be better reporting on how lawmakers evaluate grant applications. She points to the City and County of Honolulu’s grant awards process, which involves an independent committee that scores applications and makes recommendations on awards to the county.

Maruyama also said lawmakers should start evaluating how these grant awards fit in with the state’s broader goals and budget priorities. That’s something Luke agrees with as well.

“We need to really work in concert with how these services overlay with government services,” Luke said.

Still, Maruyama said the grants typically act as seed money for many nonprofits just trying to get programs started.

“Some nonprofits told me it’s the one place they can get unrestricted funding for a project that wouldn’t get seeded anywhere else,” Maruyama said. “There’s a beauty to it, being able to rely on that type of source.”

Nishimoto will be tasked with compiling a final list of awards for Luke to consider. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz will oversee grant awards for the Senate.

Luke said the final list of grant awards each year is the result of negotiations between the House and the Senate. Even after winning legislative approval, the grant awards are still vetted by the governor’s administration, which has final say on whether a grant is awarded.

Funds for the awards are disbursed to various state agencies, which oversee individual grants. Awardees access their grant funds by requesting reimbursements for their expenses, according to Tokuda.

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