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“We are a poster child for the unintended consequences of the earmark ban,” said Troy Larson, executive director of the Lewis & Clark project. “At a time when we need the funding the most, Congress has tied their hands.”
Meanwhile, local communities such as Luverne, Minn., have had to spend their own public money on interim water measures. Pipestone saw an ethanol plant canceled because of a lack of water. And since small federal outlays are not keeping up with the rate of inflation, the project is getting more expensive and falling further behind budget every year.
“This effort to save money through the earmark ban is actually costing the taxpayers more money,” Larson said.
Franken has secured a commitment to increase planned funding levels for rural water projects in a Senate budget blueprint. But in the convoluted world of federal budgeting, setting higher spending caps on paper is no guarantee that a project will actually get any more money. “There’s a lot of work left to be done to secure this funding,” Franken said.
Meanwhile, the I-94 and Lewis & Clark projects could help revive a debate about earmarks, particularly those that further bricks and mortar infrastructure needs. “I’m hearing more conversations [in Congress]” Walz said.
Bachmann, for her part, has argued in the past that building roads and bridges should not be considered earmarks. But in a November organizational meeting, House GOP leaders nixed an effort to weaken the ban.
Balanced against any easing are memories of the proposed $400 million Gravina Island Bridge, which would have served an Alaska community of some 50 people. Known as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the earmark became synonymous with wasteful pork-barrel spending.
Among the skeptics is U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., one of the first members of Congress to reject federal earmarks for his district. “Congressman Kline prefers a process that cuts through federal bureaucratic red tape by allowing projects to be prioritized in a merit-based manner,” said his spokesman, Troy Young, “rather than the previous broken and corrupt system of earmarking which allowed Washington to spend money it didn’t have on projects most of Congress knew nothing about.”
Critics of the ban, including former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, an Iron Range Democrat who earmarked millions of dollars in projects around the state, say the issue is not how much the governments spends, but who spends it.
Other reformers say that as long as the process is made transparent to the public, elected officials are better suited than Washington bureaucrats to determine which local projects should receive federal funds.
Said Franken: “We’re the ones with our ears to the ground back home.”
Kevin Diaz • firstname.lastname@example.org