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$321M in pork gone

Isle programs could lose out after U.S. Sen. Inouye bans earmarks following a pledge by Obama

By Gene Park

LAST UPDATED: 1:35 a.m. HST, Feb 2, 2011

Hawaii programs that depend on hundreds of millions of congressional dollars are in jeopardy after U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye said yesterday he would ban "earmarks" for the next two years.

The moratorium on earmarks, provisions directed by members of Congress to specific projects, could mean job losses, cut programs and military construction projects that might never see the light of day.

Inouye chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and has brought in much of the federal earmark money flowing into the islands. He is perhaps the most outspoken defender of earmarks, and has often been dubbed the unapologetic "king" of earmarks and pork-barrel spending.

Inouye's announcement follows President Barack Obama's pledge during his State of the Union address to veto any bill containing earmarks.

"The handwriting is clearly on the wall," Inouye said. "Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law."

In December the U.S. Senate abandoned a $1.3 trillion appropriations bill, laden with about $321 million earmarked for Hawaii projects. In the meantime there is a continuing resolution that funds the federal government, but that expires March 4.

Inouye said the Appropriations Committee will review its earmark policy to ensure that every member in Congress has "a precise definition of what constitutes an earmark."

It is those words that officials at the East-West Center are hanging their hopes on.

The appropriations bill laid out $23.1 million for the internationally recognized think tank, more than a third of the center's annual budget. The center receives about $10 million from private grants and contracts.

Karen Knudsen, the center's director of external affairs, said that appropriation is a plus-up, or a change in the president's budget by Congress.

"We are part of the executive budget," Knudsen said. "There's reason to believe that we're not an earmark in the traditional sense."

Without the money, Knudsen said the center would have to review its fundraising strategy as well as its current programs and obligations.

Inouye said the Appropriations Committee will revisit the earmarks issue next year "when the consequences of this decision are fully understood by the members of this body."

"At the appropriate time, I will once again urge the Senate to consider a transparent and fair earmark process that protects our rights as legislators to answer the petitions of our constituents, regardless of what the president or some federal bureaucrat thinks is right," Inouye said.

Knudsen said earmarks are an opportunity to help their respective communities because they are the ones who know what is needed.

"Yes, there are some earmarks we can joke about," Knudsen said, "but there are others that have made a significant difference in their community. ... Let's be careful before we make these broad statements."

Inouye's move won faint praise from Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Jonah Kaauwai, who said earmarking has created a culture of special-interest corruption.

"The King of Pork's years of earmarking have left Hawaii unnecessarily dependent on federal government handouts," Kaauwai said. "I believe that Hawaii's people want to and can be self-sustaining, and this is a positive first step toward standing on our own two feet and getting our nation out of debt."

Kaauwai acknowledged that the earmark ban will have a serious impact on construction and trades industries that depend on military contracts funded by earmarks, like $9 million for a new fire station at West Loch in Pearl Harbor.

Another project includes construction of a proposed U.S. Coast Guard Command and Interagency Operations Center. The abandoned appropriations bill was to give $18.1 million — among the larger earmarks — for the center, which would be a centralized location for local and federal agencies to work with the Coast Guard.

When asked what the Coast Guard would do if the funding does not arrive, Coast Guard Sector Hono-lulu spokesman Lt. Gene Maestas said he would not speculate on what might happen.

"What I can tell you is that we do have an interagency command center that was established at Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads in Virginia," Maestas said. "I worked with that command center. I can tell you, having agency partners in one facility did speed up the execution and prosecution of cases because the information-sharing was immediate. It allowed you to make very quick decisions."

Without the earmarks, it also could mean that 30 of the 36 Hawaii National Guard anti-drug personnel will lose their jobs. Guard public affairs director Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony said they are now trying to reassign soldiers and airmen out of the program.

"We've been kind of planning for such a possibility as this, so we have been instituting different policies within counterdrug, trying to minimize the impact," Anthony said. The Guard also implemented a new policy limiting personnel to no more than five years in the program.

The counterdrug program augments local law enforcement efforts to pursue drug producers and traffickers. Sometimes the Guard would provide helicopters to conduct surveillance, or provide infrared equipment to identify drug houses.

"We've always known that much of the funding is dependent on year-to-year earmarks, and just reading the tea leaves, we know we had to prepare," Anthony said.

The Boys and Girls Club of Hawaii was looking forward to $1.5 million for its rural community outreach program. Executive Director David Nakada said the money would have been used for programs to teach children how to shoot video as a means to shrink isolation in rural communities.

The program began in Maui and Kauai, and the money would have gone toward expanding it to Big Island communities.

"There's obviously going to be some cutbacks for those who have been subrecipients of the grant," Nakada said. "We like to hope that there is enough staying power in the program that it'll last beyond the funding."

The University of Hawaii system was to see about $4.95 million for a number of purposes, including clinical pharmacy training, and occupational safety and health research.

University spokeswoman Kristen Bonilla said the administration is assessing the situation and does not yet know what the impact will be if the funding is not received.

"When we do know more details, we will brief our Board of Regents on the situation," Bonilla said.


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