Hawaii Senate President Showers Kauai With Pork Projects In New State Budget - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

An analysis of the Hawaii Legislature’s capital improvement projects shows that the districts of top leaders and neighbor island lawmakers got lots of money. 

If bringing home the bacon is a measure of a legislator’s success, Ron Kouchi sits at the top of the pork pile.

The Senate president announced April 26 that more than $144 million in capital improvement projects had been secured in the state budget bill for Kauai, which Kouchi has represented along with tiny Niihau since 2010.

The money ranges from smaller projects like $125,000 for construction and signage at the Hanapepe Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese Cemetery, to much larger projects like the $56 million for land acquisition and improvements to the terminals, systems and facilities at Lihue Airport. There are nearly two dozen projects in all.

“Due to collaborative efforts with Representatives (Dee) Morikawa, (Nadine) Nakamura, and (Luke) Evslin, our island delegation successfully obtained significant funding in the state budget to tackle a range of critical infrastructure issues throughout Kauai,” Kouchi said in a press release just a week before the 2023 session wrapped. “These capital improvement projects will make a considerable difference in enhancing the overall living standards for those who call the Garden Isle home.”

The Lihue airport is a beneficiary of $56 million in capital improvement project funds for land acquisition and improvements to the terminals, systems and facilities. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022)

When it comes to CIP, Kouchi and Kauai did quite well when compared to his 24 colleagues and their districts. Out of the $1.7 billion in CIP for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, a significant chunk of it is going to an island that is only about 5% of the state’s population.

According to a Civil Beat analysis of the CIP listed in House Bill 300, the state budget bill that became law the day before the new fiscal year began July 1, the Senate distribution of the monies is highly uneven.

Much of it goes to districts represented by members of Senate leadership including Kouchi, Lorraine Inouye (majority whip) and Lynn DeCoite (assistant majority floor leader) who, like Kouchi, also represent neighbor island districts. These and several other neighbor island districts dominate the top 10 recipients in terms of CIP.

(While the districts for Oahu Sens. Karl Rhoads and Glenn Wakai are identified as receiving the most CIP, nearly all of it was made at the request of state agencies.)

Capital improvement projects for the next two years also are set to flow steadily to the district of Donovan Dela Cruz, arguably the most powerful senator by virtue of being chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The same goes for Gil Keith-Agaran, another Senate leader who as WAM vice chair is responsible for coordinating CIP distribution. Dela Cruz represents parts of Oahu while Keith-Agaran (who’s also an assistant majority whip) is from Maui.

At the bottom of the pork pile, meanwhile, are the two Oahu Republicans in the Democrat-dominated chamber along with a half-dozen Oahu Democrats whose CIP is in the low five figures compared to considerably higher amounts for many of their colleagues.

Which Senate Districts Got The Most CIP Fund Requests

Different Districts, Different Needs

There are important caveats when it comes to understanding where the money goes, and why.

A senator’s ability to work with the House colleagues sharing district boundaries can help increase CIP, as seen with Kouchi and the three Kauai reps. Neighbor island lawmakers often join forces to get funds not just for schools — the most popular CIP request by far — but for major facilities such as airports, harbors and institutes of higher learning.

The needs of districts can differ dramatically, too, including for roads and highways, hospitals and clinics, reservoirs and water systems, memorials and community areas. The socio-economic status of the populations are similarly diverse, ranging from extremely wealthy enclaves to the poorest of the poor.

And just because a lot of CIP money may be going to a senator’s district does not necessarily mean they asked for it. The CIP totals for Rhoads and Wakai are skewed because of major facilities in their districts — for instance, Honolulu Harbor in Rhoads’ district and Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Wakai’s. Those requests come from the state Department of Transportation. Removing those state agency projects from their districts drops them down considerably on the list.

Capital improvement projects add up to a lot of money. CIP allocated for fiscal years 2024 and 2025 in House Bill 300 totals more than $4.2 billion. There are 387 separate projects.

Of that $4.2 billion figure, $2.5 billion is to be used for statewide projects including highways, harbors, college and universities, parks, renewal projects and deferred maintenance. The largest lump sum — $246 million — is federal grant money for plans, design, construction and more for schools. 

It is the remaining $1.7 billion that is the CIP for senators and their districts. But CIP information is difficult to glean from the budget documents posted on the Legislature’s website, making it hard for the public to know where exactly their taxpayer monies are going.

Nowhere in the online Senate CIP document does it show who received which allocation, nor what each senator asked -- although Keith-Agaran said people who live in particular communities will likely be able to figure out pretty easily the projects in their districts.

Using the latest Senate reapportionment maps and Google Maps, Civil Beat looked up all of the capital improvement projects. Here’s more of what was learned.

Harbors, Airports, Schools

Rhoads, who as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee wields a lot of influence, is identified in this overall analysis as getting the most CIP of all senators for his District 13. But that’s very misleading.

In addition to Honolulu Harbor, District 13 (Nuuanu, Pacific Heights, Downtown, Chinatown) also includes the Hawaii State Capitol, Iolani Palace and the Department of Health, which combined are to receive well over $220 million in CIP. But that is money that is requested by the executive branch and not from Rhoads. Subtract those amounts and District 13 ends up with about $8 million for elementary schools and Honolulu Community College in his district.

Rhoads did request money for Maemae Elementary and Nuuanu Elementary. (Each senator is asked by Keith-Agaran to make three priority CIP requests.) Rhoads has also in the past asked for CIP for the Capitol, which is a tourist attraction but has long been in disrepair, but not this year, he said. And the CIP money for HCC comes from the University of Hawaii.

In the case of Glenn Wakai, whose district is identified in this analysis as ranking second-highest in total CIP, the request for $218 million for construction and improvements to the Honolulu airport comes from the DOT, not the senator. The Oahu Correctional Community Center is also located in District 15 (Kalihi, Salt Lake, parts of Aiea and Pearl City), but a $10 million CIP request to seek proposals for a new jail came from the Department of Public Safety while $5 million for work at Sand Island State Recreation Area came from the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Wakai’s district, which will see 10 area schools receive CIP, is in urban Honolulu, an often densely populated area, and his CIP ask for schools includes Waipahu High School.

Henry Aquino, whose District 19 borders District 15 (Pearl City, Waipahu), has CIP money going to Waipahu Elementary and Waipahu Intermediate.

Schools such as Waipahu High School often get CIP funds for improvements, thanks to area legislators. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Meantime, Michele Kidani, the Senate vice president and chair of the Senate Education Committee, has no CIP money going to her District 18 on Oahu (Mililani Town, Waikele, parts of Waipahu, Royal Kunia).

Still, Kidani put out a press release the same day as Kouchi announcing $12 million for three schools “in her district.” The schools are Mililani High and Kipapa Elementary, which are actually located in Dela Cruz’s neighboring District 17 (parts of Mililani, Mililani Mauka, Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Launani Valley) and Waipahu High, which as noted above is in Wakai’s neighboring district.

Neither Kidani nor Wakai returned calls for comment, but Keith-Agaran said it is common and understandable for senators to take credit for helping schools that benefit multiple residents in neighboring districts, and that reapportionment resulted in some quirks.

"Some numbers will look strange to some people because, I mean, everybody associates Senator Kidani with Mililani, but with reapportionment, the Mililani schools fall under Dela Cruz's district," he said. "So on the spreadsheet he gets credit for the Mililani schools, even though the requests and identification of those projects were from Michelle."

In her press release, Kidani also said she helped secure $1.2 million for demolition and disposal of a community center at Kalihi Valley Homes. The facility is in Donna Mercado Kim’s District 14 (Kapalama, Alewa, Kalihi, Moanalua Gardens).

Keith-Agaran said that district boundaries can give an incorrect view of a senator's home.

"I mean, the lines are artificial when you think about it," he said. "Dru Kanuha will always make requests for Kau and some other schools that are technically outside of his district. But he knows that people from his community attend (those) schools."

Kanuha is the Senate majority leader and his District 3 represents Kona and Volcano on the Big Island.

Keith-Agaran also explained that, while generally senators are asked for their top CIP priorities, it's not a hard rule.

"I think we're a little bit flexible in terms of if people's priorities change during the session," he said. "And in part that's because some people work well with their House counterparts and others don't."

The senator added that, if both the House member and the Senate member are asking for the same thing, "it makes it easier when we get to conference," meaning the final stage of session.

Roads, Hospitals, Colleges

Keith-Agaran said CIP is not necessarily supposed to be distributed equitably because "some districts will just get more for a couple of reasons and some districts may or may not need it."

But others do, and he pointed to Kouchi as an example.

"He's one senator for an entire island that has an airport, harbors as well as parks and everything else," he said. "So everything that gets allocated to Kauai falls under him."

Keith-Agaran also said that neighbor island projects cost more than those on Oahu due to shipping, construction and other expenses.

Kouchi’s District 8 differs from most Senate districts in several ways. It represents 73,000 people, compared with about 50,000 to 55,000 for the other 24 districts. Besides just the one senator, Kauai also has just three House representatives, the smallest delegation.

And yet, it punched above its weight when it came to CIP this year. In addition to the money for the airport and a cemetery, projects include:

  • $16 million for the construction of paved shoulders, installing guardrails, pavement markings, signs and other improvements on Waimea Canyon Drive and Kokee Road
  • $15 million for the design and construction of PV rooftops and canopies, storage batteries and other energy efficiency projects at Kauai Community College
  • $14.9 million for the design, construction and equipment for a new psychiatric unit at the Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital
  • $7.2 million for the construction of a covered walkway and electrical upgrades at Kapaa Elementary School
  • $5 million for plans, land acquisition, design, and construction of various improvement projects at Nawiliwili Harbor

Kouchi declined to be interviewed for this story.

Inouye is just behind Kouchi when it comes to CIP money for her District 1. The senator who represents the Hilo area sent out three press releases near and at the end of session detailing the projects. Among the biggest items:

  • $50 million for the expansion of the ICU and medical surgical unit at Hilo Medical Center
  • $12 million for three elementary schools and one public charter school
  • $5.3 to finance the construction costs to improve the fire alarm system at the Hilo International Airport

Inouye told Civil Beat in an interview that the money for the medical center was her top priority because many of her constituents have to travel to Maui or Oahu for care, and because there has long been a shortage of doctors on the Big Island.

The senator did not list in her press release the almost $27 million going for work on Hilo Harbor. But she welcomes the money and explained that she works closely with agencies such as the DOT.

Inouye also raised a point shared among neighbor island lawmakers: That the Legislature has historically been Oahu-centric, an imbalance that has been addressed as of late — particularly for her island, where population growth has resulted in greater legislative representation.

“You’ve got eight neighbor island senators and 17 on Oahu, so I have to fight for my Big Island,” said Inouye.

It is also common for legislators to take credit for the same projects. Sen. Joy San Buenaventura of District 2 (Puna) announced in a May 3 press release the CIP for Hilo Medical Center, which serves her district as well as Inouye’s. San Buenaventura also singled out $30 million to widen Highway 130, the main corridor from her rural region to Hilo.

Neighbor island pull is also seen in District 7 (Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai, Lanai), where DeCoite has brought in about $100 million, according to a press release April 27. Big ticket CIP items include the following:

  • $37 million for construction improvements to terminals, systems and facilities at Kahului Airport
  • $20 million for construction and expansion of Kula Agricultural Park in Upcountry Maui
  • $14 million for work at Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital
  • $7 million for the design of a multipurpose building at Kula Elementary School
  • $2 million for improvements to the Molokai Irrigation System

DeCoite did not respond to a media inquiry, but she credited in her press release Dela Cruz, Keith-Agaran and Rep. Kyle Yamashita, a Maui rep who formerly handled CIP as vice chair of the House Finance Committee and who currently is the committee’s chair.

By Civil Beat’s analysis, CIP for District 7 totals around $129 million.

Buying Land In Mililani

While Oahu lawmakers do not typically take credit for funding the state’s largest airport and harbor, neighbor island lawmakers often push for CIP for air and sea facilities in their districts and islands. Kahului Harbor, which is in Keith-Agaran’s District 5, is slated to receive more than $58 million for a variety of projects.

But the requests came from the DOT. Keith-Agaran’s CIP requests were for schools, with the largest a $25 million appropriation for design and construction of athletic facilities and other work at Baldwin High School.

In Dela Cruz’s District 17, most of the CIP will go to area schools. The largest project is $19 million for “plans, land acquisition, design, construction, and equipment” for two vacant parcels of land owned by Castle & Cooke Properties. One parcel is classified as agricultural, the other industrial, and both are near the Mililani Technology Park and where Dela Cruz wants to build the First Responders Technology Campus and Cybersecurity Data Center.

Gov. David Ige rejected a very similar CIP request for fiscal year 2023 when he was in office. The $17.8 million request came from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and was specifically for a first responders campus.

Dela Cruz did not respond to an inquiry seeking an interview for this story.

Two senators on the lower end of CIP said they were neither surprised nor disappointed by the amounts for their districts.

Sen. Brenton Awa, a Republican representing District 23 (Kaneohe, Kahaluu, Laie, Kahaluu, Mokuleia), said he expected to do worse, because, he said, he has been outspoken in his freshman year.

“Some say I am the most hated person in this building because I stand up and do not toe the line,” he said.

  • A Special Commentary Project

Awa’s CIP requests were for schools, and he said he worked with the DOE to get as much funding as possible.

Sen. Les Ihara of District 10 (Palolo, St. Louis Heights, portions of Kaimuki, Kapahulu, Moiliili) asked for and received CIP for three schools. He said he has never sought large amounts of money for his district, which he has represented in the Senate since 1994.

“I don’t tout CIP because it’s implying that, if not for me, it would not get passed — like I am special or have muscle, or that I fight for it like a warrior or gladiator or some other motif,” he said. “And I don’t play that. I try to foster what is most needed, and the DOE is best for this because they do the research.”

But many of Ihara's colleagues prefer to trumpet their CIP. In an April 28 press release, Sen. Angus McKelvey of District 6 (West Maui, Maalaea, Waikapu, South Maui) announced nearly $80 million in capital improvement projects. They include:

  • $48 million for work at the Waikapu Wastewater Treatment Facility
  • $45 million for teacher housing near existing schools in South Maui
  • $4 million for pier repairs, lighting and other work at Lahaina Harbor
  • $3.2 million for upgrades and improvements to Mala Wharf
  • $2.5 million for flood control measures and rehabilitation of the Waipuilani Gulch and Kulanihakoi Gulch systems

Civil Beat's figure for McKelvey comes out to $104 million, although the senator acknowledges the CIP for his district includes lump sum and agency requests.

“Although compromises were made to reconcile the House and Senate drafts, I want to thank Ways and Means Chair, Senator Dela Cruz, and our CIP Chair, Senator Keith-Agaran, for their work during negotiations,” McKelvey said in a press release, adding his thanks to the other members of the Maui delegation for their support.

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

Ill be sure to buy lots of train tickets and manapua when I visit Oahu to bring some of that money back to the big city.

Chroniccommentor · 2 months ago

If the minority party "R" is being treated differently and being shafted isn’t that discrimination? The constituents in each region are impacted by not receiving appropriate funding. I know it is stretch but…look at historically how minority parties has fared in obtaining funding in Hawaii.

2cents · 2 months ago

This article tells me exactly why Kouchi is the Senate President and why he keeps Senator Dela Cruz around as the head of Ways and Means. Makes sense now. I like the detailed database. More pork investigation!

citizens_united · 2 months ago

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