The largesse in congressional earmarks awarded to Hawaii each year is in position to be severely curtailed, with Republicans in Washington coalescing around a ban on pork-barrel projects and President Barack Obama saying the nation cannot afford them.
That leaves earmarks sponsored by Senate Democrats — particularly Hawaii’s Sen. Daniel Inouye, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman who last year proclaimed himself "No. 1 earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress" — in a precarious position starting next year.
And the gravy train for Hawaii, which through the years has received billions of dollars in earmarks, may soon be severely curtailed or even eliminated with the new Congress.
"What Sen. Inouye has provided over the years is a kind of a special sweetheart deal, just because of where he sits and who he is," said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, an anti-earmarks group. "Entities in Hawaii that still want to receive federal dollars are going to have to compete with everybody else in a normal way, which in our view is a good thing."
Inouye argues that eliminating earmarks won’t cut overall spending but will empower the White House to spend as it sees fit. Moreover, he contends the process has never been more transparent, and the amount of earmarks has been halved since 2006.
If earmarks end, then the East-West Center, which has received funds since 1960, "will have to look elsewhere for the resources it needs … In addition, 95 percent of the financial aid to native Hawaiians for health, education and cultural programs will cease," the senator said in a statement Wednesday.
According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-earmark group, Hawaii won 183 earmarks valued at $412 million in the 2010 fiscal year — the highest per capita amount in the nation.
Inouye has unveiled dozens of earmark proposals for the fiscal year that begins next October, most of which are slated for the defense and agriculture spending bills.
Among the larger ones are $26.4 million to a subsidiary of Honolulu company Navatek to build a naval vessel with "bow-lifting" technology, and $25 million for the Hawaii Federal Health Care Network, which aims at improving health care for military families.
Because of his seniority and chairmanships, Inouye normally wins most of his proposed earmarks. But next year may be different.
House Republican leaders have promised to add no earmarks to House appropriations bills, and the Senate Republican caucus on Tuesday approved its own nonbinding moratorium.
Moreover, Obama in Saturday’s radio address said he agreed with members of Congress who say that, "in these challenging days, we can’t afford what are called ‘earmarks.’"
Officials from the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii — as well as the University of Hawaii, and companies and organizations that have received earmarks — did not respond to requests for comment.
Bill Spencer, president of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association, said earmarks have financed many worthy projects in the state.
But there are several public and private entities in Hawaii that "are very much dependent upon the ability of the senator to make funds show up," Spencer added.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said Hawaii will still receive a healthy dose of federal dollars even if earmarks are halted in part because its large military contingent.