In a visit with the Scott County board, he defended his decision to no longer seek special funding for pet projects -- even those that benefit his district. Board members offered sympathy, but they also voiced frustration.
Rep. John Kline strode into the lion's den Tuesday, offering a prolonged and robust defense of his decision to stop seeking the millions of dollars in so-called "earmarks" awarded to members of Congress for roads and other critical projects within their districts.
"It is a broken process and we need to fix it," he said.
But the Second District Republican was addressing the Scott County board, a group that beseeches him continually for help in getting that earmarked money. And only one offered support of his decision to step away from the trough. Most held their silence, but some spoke out in interviews after he left."We wish he were in there fighting for those projects," Commissioner Jon Ulrich said. Commissioner Barbara Marschall said the collective reaction of the county's leadership after learning of his decision last year was, "Now what?" The irony, all sides agree, is that one of the nation's fastest-growing counties, depending on federal help to rapidly build out the transportation system, is represented by a junior congressional member of the minority party whose committee memberships put him close to the end of the line when it comes to handing out federal largesse.
The fact that such political factors weigh so heavily is a pity, commissioners agreed. But earmarks are the system everyone has to deal with. And Kline's refusal to take part in it could hurt them -- and himself in the next election.
"We are proud of those projects," Ulrich said, adding pointedly, "... and so was he."
Kline acknowledged as much, noting that he used to call press conferences to trumpet the earmarks he received. One piece of the 2005 federal highway bill, for instance, was a nearly $10 million grant for the Cedar Avenue bus rapid transit project in Apple Valley, jointly obtained by Kline and by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
"Earmarks" is shorthand for a system in which members of Congress get to direct money to particular needs within their districts. Those in key positions, such as James Oberstar, D-Minn., who chairs the House Transportation Committee, get to target much more money than colleagues with less influence.
In the last major transportation bill, Kline told the board, "one district in Minnesota" -- Oberstar's, in the northeast -- "got more money than the other seven combined. He got more for bike trails in northern Minnesota than the entire southern metro got for roads and transit."
Instead of "rational priorities," he said, the system depends on being on the right committee, in the right party, being senior in Congress and having connections. The best way to fight an irrational process, Kline said, is not to take part in it but protest it, as a handful of other congressional members have agreed to do.
Truth about the system
Although resistance may seem hopeless, he said, around a dozen members of Congress are taking his position and that number "will be significantly larger this year."
Commissioner Bob Vogel endorsed Kline's position, saying it's a "balance between doing what's right and what the public wants. I may be unique among commissioners in agreeing with you."
The truth about earmarks, Vogel said, is that everyone thinks stopping them "is a great idea until the arts center or the trail you want is not funded."
Kline, too, cast earmarks as being all too often for things like "decorative lighting for the L.A. fashion district." But in interviews, commissioners stressed that that isn't the purpose for which they are seeking funds. "We don't take projects to him that aren't worthy," Marschall said.
Although Kline may not get as much funding as others, whatever he can get helps Scott County, officials said. For example, on a project to expand County Rd. 21, he helped obtain $750,000 in 2003, $860,000 in 2004, and $2.1 million in 2005.
Speaking after Tuesday's meeting, Kline said he doubts whether the issue will get him in trouble politically within the Republican-leaning district.
"With county commissioners, transportation bubbles to the top," he said, because that's so big a part of their job. They come to me and show me their maps and they have a point. But outside this room, out on the street, many things rank higher than that."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023