Allowance questions: Where politicians spend your money

Taxpayers could be on the hook for about a million dollars a year when it comes to the spending money lawmakers are entitled to each year. How some are spending their legislative allowances is getting attention.

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discretionary spenders

Are you dedicated to public service, and don’t mind long hours and low pay? That’s part of working at the State Capitol, but there are some perks.

“We spend a lot of late nights,” said Rep. Tom Brower (D-Waikiki, Ala Moana), “and usually when food is paid for, it’s to pay the staff.”

Brower is referring to how just about every officeholder uses legislative allowance to buy things, which includes lots and lots and lots of food.

KHON2 analyzed two years of data, line by line, going over more than 5,000 entries to see just how each lawmaker spends the nearly $12,000 in discretionary dollars they receive each year.

More than $276,000 has gone to food — from bentos to candy, coffee, catering, water, meals for staff, volunteers and visitors.

discretionary spending

Nearly $200,000 was spent on travel. There are neighbor island trips, and trips to the mainland, Japan, even Turkey.

Keeping you posted costs a lot in printing and postage — nearly $350,000 combined to communicate with constituents.

All of this, Capitol leadership says, falls into the constitutional definition for the allowance: “to cover incidental expenses connected with legislative duties.”

But lately, the State Ethics Commission is getting complaints and has been asking questions about the spending.

“The concerns are that a number of the expenditures appear to be more personal in nature,” Ethics Commission director Les Kondo told KHON2. “Things like dry cleaning, like birthday cakes, retirement gifts, funeral flowers, contributions to charitable organizations — things that appear very personal and not related to the legislator’s official duties.”

discretionary food

There are television sets, office security cameras, really comfortable chairs, customized coins for gifts.

There are transportation, travel and car rental expenses turned in, even by neighbor island lawmakers who also get $175 no-receipts-asked per diem for just those kinds of things.

“There are a lot of things we do because of the nature, the hours that we spend here, the long hours,” said Senate president Donna Mercado (D-Kapalama, Alewa, Kalihi Valley, Ft. Shafter, Moanalua). “Sometimes we need to feed our staff and they don’t get overtime or anything of that nature, so that’s certainly part of the office.”

If everyone spent every penny, it could add up to $1 million a year. Over the past couple of years, Sen. Malama Solomon’s office (D-Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Waimea, Waikoloa, Kona) has turned in the most for allowance reimbursements at more than $21,000. Sen. Sam Slom (R- Hawaii Kai, Kuliouou, Niu, Aina Haina, Waialae-Kahala, Diamond Head) has turned in the least — as in none — followed by Brower at second-lowest with only about $5,800 reimbursed over two years.

discretionary travel

“I want to do right by the people who voted me in,” Brower said, “and I want to spend the least amount of state money possible.”

But KHON2 did find a receipt within an “office supplies” reimbursement of his for the sledgehammer he took to shopping carts the homeless used. Originally turned in as an office supply, he’s since bought that back from the state.

When asked why the sledgehammer was turned in as a state expense in the first place, Brower said, “Because I was using it in the community as community cleanup. I think that’s a fair state expense, but after there was all this notoriety with me taking away the shopping carts from sidewalks and parks, I said you know, I want to pay for that sledgehammer myself and keep it because it kind of has a life of its own.”

Legislative Allowance Tool
Use KHON2’s interactive Legislative Allowance Tool to search for spending data from specific lawmakers.

The spending almost across the board has become such an issue the Ethics Commission staff is close to putting out more draft guidance with recommendations that could rein things in. They asked Capitol leadership for input on the guidelines but were told the House and Senate could handle it themselves.

“There are always concerns,” Sen. Kim said. “We have checked with our attorneys and our attorneys opine that it is in fact a constitutional amendment and that in fact we are the ones that should govern and should determine how it is in fact spent.”

So what should the commission do at this point?

“Just stay away from it, because we’re handling it internally,” said Rep. Joe Souki (D-Kahakuloa, Waihee, Waiehu, Puuohala, Wailuku, Waikapu). “I don’t see any major changes (needed), but that’s not to say you can’t tweak it to make it a little better.”

The Ethics office takes issue with that position. “The legislative allowance is public money,” Kondo said. “It’s not part of a legislator’s salary.”

“We’ll certainly look at our guidelines and policy guidelines and include it when the next session arrives,” Sen. Kim said. “We can certainly make amendments to that and that is what we will probably be doing.”

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