Hawaii Island Deserves A Bigger Slice Of Infrastructure Pie - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Jeanné Kapela

Rep. Jeanné Kapela is the state representative for House District 5.


The state’s capital improvement budget should address economic equity in remote areas.

The southern half of Hawaii island is home to some of the most impoverished communities in the state. Following last year’s reapportionment process, the remote and rural district I represent (House District 5) is now the largest in Hawaii in terms of geographic size.

A significant portion of the Kau region lacks access to running water, including places like Ocean View and Milolii. Our neighbors live without quality medical and mental health services. Some of our keiki even attend schools that lack functioning fire alarms.

Kona Community Hospital is in dire need of assistance. This year, the hospital was compelled to seek an emergency appropriation to maintain pharmacy operations that provide life-saving chemotherapy drugs.
Without this funding, cancer patients will lose access to vital treatments, which is why West Hawaii legislators made this one of our top capital improvement project requests for the current legislative session.

Public schools, too, struggle with aging infrastructure. Kau High and Pahala Elementary were built in 1881. Naalehu Elementary was also founded in the 19th century. It is the oldest public school in the state and has received few campus upgrades since its establishment.

Flooding plagues schools like Mountain View Elementary that face persistent drainage problems. Uncovered walkways riddle the campus, leaving students at the mercy of the weather. The media and performing arts centers enjoyed by Honolulu schools seem like distant dreams to Hawaii island families.

Ka'u High and Pahala Elementary School
Elementary school students at Kau High and Pahala Elementary School, which have aging infrastructure. (Courtesy/2022)

These are pressing problems. Year after year, however, our island receives a disproportionately small share of capital improvement funds.

In 2021, for example, legislators approved $130 million in facilities funding for Hawaii island out of a total capital improvement budget of just over $1.7 billion.

That equates to roughly 8% of overall capital improvement expenditures for an island that hosts nearly 13% of the state’s population.

‘Rectify The Disparity’

As lawmakers craft a new state budget, we must rectify the disparity in how capital improvement dollars are allocated. Historically, the infrastructure needs of rural and indigent communities have been perennially neglected. To truly advance the goal of delivering prosperity for all, that needs to change.

Capital improvement funds are intended to build the basic infrastructure that enables our community to thrive. While Oahu has a larger overall population than the neighbor islands because of Honolulu’s urban cityscape, rural communities are far more impoverished in terms of aggregate household income and economic growth.

Rather than focusing on population density or political considerations, lawmakers should prioritize equity in infrastructure appropriations. In 2019, the Hawaii Board of Education took this philosophy to heart by adopting a financial planning framework that centers our most vulnerable students.

Lawmakers should prioritize equity in infrastructure appropriations.

Board of Education Policy 301-10 says, “The Department shall strive to ensure that all students have safe, accessible, and supportive school facilities by allocating capital improvement program and repair and maintenance resources equitably, effectively, and transparently. This equitable allocation must take into account the socioeconomic and academic needs of each school’s student population.”

If legislators follow this policy, then schools serving financially disadvantaged communities will receive the funding necessary to support those who are forced to sit on the economic sidelines. That is a principle that should guide state spending on all matters, from public health to emergency preparedness to our children’s learning system.

The famous Greek historian Plutarch once said, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

To that end, we should build a capital improvement budget that extends compassion to the communities that are most in need of a helping hand.

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About the Author

Jeanné Kapela

Rep. Jeanné Kapela is the state representative for House District 5.


Latest Comments (0)

It's a noble thought that funds might be dispersed close to where they are collected. But that's why we have multiple layers of governance. The city and counties are more in line with what you envision. Collecting money on the Big Island to spend on the Big Island. The role of the State Government is to collect money across the state and spend it where it will best benefit the State (as negotiated by the people's representatives) and have the most effect.So, it's really hard to have sympathy for the relative economic impoverishment of the Big Island when they've been the "Island of No" lately. No to telescopes. No to spaceports. No to commercial pilot training centers way back when. That's just one industry. There've been no's to sawmills, biofuel plants, dairies, slaughter houses, feed lots. The list goes on. After a while people tune out the island that cried poor.That may be brutal feedback, but as a representative how do you plan to change the history that underlies that narrative? How will you convince us that you are helping to paddle the canoe that is the economy?

heluhelu · 7 months ago

One expects a polician to be flacking for big project monies for their district, but one hopes a case is made based on the implicit social contract. Funds for those kinds of works come from local, state, and often Federal taxpayers, and there should be some form of exchange or return, if only appropriate acknowledgement. (If not, it's like requisitioning charity.) Merely framing it as an obligation doesn't suffice, though perhaps it would have when money was more abundant. Surely there's enough space allowed in the essay to see the representative provide a better argument (such as: South Island's support of TMT, or other Federal & state projects ? Current tax base expenditures ? Comparative access to other tax-based support, such as emergency funds ? Track record of efficient use of stae or external public monies ? etc.) before the spigot opens.

Kamanulai · 7 months ago

Our main source of income in these Hawaiian islands is tourism and yet it seems that every time I pick up a newspaper or check the internet somebody is complaining that there's too much tourism too many visitors the beaches are too crowded etc etc I think that when we want more money to do more good in our Islands we should consider that we don't want to be chasing away the goose that laid the golden egg so please lighten up on the negative rhetoric regarding tourism and accept the fact that our hospitals would be in distress our schools would be also because they're not making a profit and they need financial support as your community on the big island does so let's be more positive toward tourism in the process and maybe we would not have to make requests like this hopefully in the future...

kaanapali2 · 7 months ago

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