comscore Isles facing drought in earmark funds
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Isles facing drought in earmark funds

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For decades, the billions of dollars that U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye wrangled out of Congress for Hawaii-specific projects flowed into many of the state’s business, educational and governmental corners.

But now, the earmark spigot appears to have gone dry.

A stopgap spending law that will finance the federal government through early March contains no earmarks. And it appears likely that Republicans—whose influence in Congress will rise markedly next month—and some Democrats will fight earmarks in any future spending bill.

That means government programs and business projects in Hawaii that were relying on the earmark funding from the Hawaii congressional delegation may have to cut back or halt, at least for the next several months.

"We may very well have to lay off some personnel," said Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony of the Hawaii National Guard, which would have received $3 million for drug enforcement efforts from an Inouye earmark during the current federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The program was to operate with 49 employees, but now 35 positions are in danger, Anthony said. "If there’s no other way of securing federal funding, yeah, it would have a very severe impact on the counterdrug program," he added.

Peter Boylan, Inouye’s spokesman, said in an e-mail, "Unfortunately, as things stand now, these worthy programs will be forced to seek alternate sources of funding."

Until recently, members of Congress sponsored thousands of annual appropriations for projects in their districts and states. For example, 141 Hawaii earmarks worth $321 million were in the omnibus 2011 spending bill that recently died in the Senate, according to Boylan.

Inouye, who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, has argued that the overall amount spent on earmarks has markedly decreased and the transparency by which Congress considers them has improved.

But earmarks continue to be a target. So when the omnibus measure failed, Congress instead passed a continuing resolution that put federal spending for the current fiscal year on autopilot through March 4 and funded no earmarks. President Barack Obama signed it last week.

Moreover, earmarks appear unwelcome by the incoming Congress, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-earmark group in Washington.

"I have a hard time seeing that a strengthened Republican minority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House are going to adopt a spending bill then that has earmarks in it," he said.

Ellis stressed that Hawaii will still receive billions of federal dollars, particularly to support the U.S. military presence here. The money just won’t come from earmarks, he said.

Still, past earmarks sponsored by the Hawaii delegation have been a lucrative source of financing for nonprofit groups, for-profit businesses, the University of Hawaii and state and local governments.

For example, Inouye sponsored 2011 earmarks to direct $26.4 million to Pacific Marine of Honolulu for new "bow-lifting" naval technology; $13.7 million to North Star Scientific Corp. of Kapolei for new airborne surveillance systems; and $10 million to Oceanit of Honolulu for a system to better track satellites and space debris.

He also had championed earmarks worth $27.5 million in defense funds for the University of Hawaii.

Jim Gaines, UH vice president for research, said his system is just beginning to grapple with the loss of that and several other earmarks, particularly for research.

"On the educational activity side, we’re (financially) stressed to start with," he said. "To think that that side is somehow going to pick up over on the (research) side is very unlikely."

Among the earmarks backed by U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka were $5.7 million to restore a historic seaplane hangar at Midway Island, nearly $3.8 million he and Inouye sought for Native Hawaiian education programs, and $3.4 million to the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission to help clean up a former weapons range and protect endangered species.

"Instead of making things better, we’re just trying to keep things from getting worse now," said Michael Nahoopii, the commission’s executive director.


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