WASHINGTON — Congressional earmarks are back, and for Hawaii that means hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal spending.

In March, President Joe Biden signed a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill that will fund the government through September. Buried in the line items are billions of dollars members of Congress set aside for special projects in their states and districts.

Hawaii’s federal delegation was able to secure more than $265 million for dozens of projects in the islands.

There’s $600,000 for fencing to keep invasive deer and pigs from devouring Maui’s croplands, nearly $3 million for electric vehicle charging stations on Oahu and Kauai, and $19 million for the planning and design of a Hawaii-based missile defense radar that Pentagon officials aren’t so sure they need anymore.

Local nonprofits are some of the biggest beneficiaries, from MA‘O Organic Farms in Waianae to the Zoological Society of San Diego, which hopes to save Hawaii’s endangered forest birds.

“This is huge for Hawaii because it gives your elected representatives substantially more control over how federal funds are spent,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said. “As a result lots of very worthy community organizations are getting the funding they need to do their good work. This is the fun part of my job.”

Congressionally directed spending, better known as earmarking, is back. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2020

Earmarks were once commonplace in Washington, but after a series of corruption scandals — including one that sent California Republican Duke Cunningham to prison for bribery — the practice was abolished in 2011.

Democrats and Republicans decided last year to bring back their ability to direct federal funds through earmarks, with some saying that power of the purse should be back in the hands of members of Congress, who better understand the needs of their constituents and districts.

To avoid controversy, lawmakers implemented a number of new rules meant to bring more transparency and accountability to the practice by forcing members to post their earmark requests on their websites with a written notice that they and their families do not have a financial stake in the projects.

For Hawaii, earmarks have held a particularly prominent place in civic life.

Senator Brian Schatz.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is a fan of earmarks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The late-U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye once chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, and often described himself as the “King of Pork” for his ability to shuffle federal dollars to pet projects in the islands.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog that tracks government spending, Inouye was responsible for $1.2 billion in earmarks between fiscal years 2008 and 2010, which ranked third among all U.S. senators.

A New York Times analysis found that Democrats and Republicans alike took part in stuffing the fiscal year 2022 budget with nearly 5,000 earmarks totaling around $9 billion.

Schatz ranked seventh among his colleagues, securing $241.8 million while U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono came in 14th with $189.5 million, although there was significant overlap between the two since they worked together on various funding requests, particularly those that built up military spending in the islands.

Together they secured some of the largest earmarks for the state, including $64.5 million to upgrade the electrical distribution system at Marine Corps Base Kaneohe and $19 million for the planning and design of a $1.9 billion missile defense radar that the Pentagon had zeroed out in its own budget in recent years to focus on other priorities.

In the House, members were limited in how many earmark requests they could make, which meant Hawaii congressmen Ed Case and Kai Kahele only secured $15 million in new set asides for the state.

The congressmen together won approval of 19 earmarks, including $2 million for the Blood Bank of Hawaii, which is being forced to relocate because of Honolulu’s $11 billion rail project, and $1.2 million for the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, which will use the money for a trades and entrepreneurship academy.

In total, Hawaii’s federal delegation included 77 separate earmarks in the fiscal year 2022 budget with the amounts ranging from $80,000 to expand STEM education opportunities at the Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii to $23 million for the realignment of Honoapiilani Highway in West Maui, which is threatened by sea level rise.

The projects are diverse and touch on everything from affordable housing and astronomy to youth education and the restoration of Native Hawaiian fish ponds.

Nanci Kreidman, the CEO of the Domestic Violence Action Center, is receiving nearly $400,000 for her nonprofit to help immigrants and Native Hawaiians who are victims of partner abuse. Without the money, she said, she would have to chase the funds elsewhere, whether at the Legislature or pitching private institutions. Instead, the funds will help keep the programs afloat for another year.

“We’ll find ourselves in the same situation next year, but we’re trying to live with the gratitude and the joy of the moment,” Kreidman said. “This is precious to us.”

Schatz said it’s easy to focus the attention on the big ticket items getting the largest share of the federal dollars, but it’s giving money to smaller organizations that he hopes will have the greater impact.

“We’re always going to appropriate money for highways and roads and bridges and harbors and airports,” Schatz said.

“Those dollar amounts are enormous and all of that is important and essential for Hawaii’s economy. But if you want to talk about your biggest bang for your buck, send $350,000 to a nonprofit on Molokai or send $80,000 to the Boys and Girls Club for a STEM program or send $367,000 to the Domestic Violence Action Center.”

Case acknowledged that Hawaii’s delegation did “very, very well” securing earmarks in fiscal year 2022, but noted that the $265 million is just a fraction of the federal money that comes to the islands each year as part of the regular budget process.

Both he and Schatz sit on their chambers’ respective Appropriations Committees, which gives them outsized influence over how federal dollars are spent.

Ed Case and wife Audrey Nakamura at headquarters Saturday night, August 11, 2018. (Civilbeat photo by Ronen Zilberman)
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case says his job is to send federal dollars back to the state any way he can, including through the use of earmarks. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2018

Their positions also give them insight in how best to steer money back into the state, whether it’s by increasing line item spending for Native Hawaiian health care and education or penciling in a project through the revamped earmarking procedure that has been rebranded as “community project funding” in part to take away some of the sting from previous controversies that resulted in the decade-long moratorium.

“I never had a problem with earmarks,” Case said. “But I did have a problem with the abuse of earmarks. I thought they got out of control.”

Like Schatz, Case wants to focus his efforts directing money to organizations and causes that might not otherwise receive federal funding.

He said he also wants to use the process to jumpstart projects that he considers critical to Hawaii, such as allocating $800,000 to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin the process of modernizing Honolulu Harbor so that it is better equipped to withstand natural disasters and rising sea levels associated with a changing climate.

“I try to use all the tools of the trade to reasonably get money to Hawaii wherever and however I can,” he said.

For fiscal year 2023, Case will have even more opportunity. House leadership is increasing the number of funding requests from 10 to 15, which could mean even more money for Hawaii.

Already, Case said he’s received far more requests for funding than he did the previous year. The abundance means he’ll have to be even more discerning with his own requests for funding, which he described as a good problem to have.

“Now people realize that community project funding is out there,” Case said. “So I’m happy to make some tough decisions here.”

Hirono and Kahele did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for comment.

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