WASHINGTON – Water creeps through the 40-year-old roof of the Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis, and a "natural waterfall" leaks into the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Then there's the health care clinic whose home was destroyed in the turmoil after George Floyd's death.
These and dozens of other projects around the state will see some of the millions headed to Minnesota, due to earmarks in a massive bipartisan government funding bill President Joe Biden signed into law last week.
"We're able to directly listen to the local officials and the nonprofits in the area," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who got money for 72 projects that made it into the final bill. "I often think that people on the ground and electeds that represent them can do a better job of figuring out some real needs in the community than bureaucrats in Washington."
After being banned in 2011, earmarks — the awarding of funds to specific recipients rather than through a merit-based process — have returned with reforms, allowing Congress to steer federal dollars toward local projects that touch on a range of issues. While the practice has been derided by some over the years, Minnesota lawmakers in both parties are welcoming back earmarks.
"When we do traditional appropriations it's hard to home in on particular projects in the community and have it be community-centered," DFL U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who helped secure money for 10 projects in Minnesota's Fifth District, said during a recent news conference. "The opportunity now to say, these are the specific things my community needs and wants to be invested in — and to actually be able to deliver that — is incredible."
Highlights of the new Minnesota earmarks, according to official details, include well over $5 million to expand broadband internet in Pine County and over $3 million to do the same in Goodhue County; $2.5 million towards a levee improvement project in Carver; $2 million to replace portable police radios in St. Paul; and $375,000 that was championed by Klobuchar and DFL U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips for a Chanhassen-based nonprofit that addresses substance use.
"It's about making sure that our tax money comes home and gets invested in those areas that are going to grow the economy, that are going to make our community safer and that are going to make sure that we all grow and prosper together," Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig said about the nine projects she helped get money for.
Making this round of money a reality didn't happen quickly. It came after a winding road of work that saw lawmakers rely on short-term funding bills to avert repeated federal government shutdown threats before the longer-term spending legislation cleared Congress earlier this month.
The $1.5 trillion bill that includes the local projects rankled some lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, who called the legislation "a prime example of why Congress must fix our annual budget process." The Sixth District Republican got six projects into the final bill, including $2 million for sewer and water improvements for Richmond, according to his office.
But both Emmer and GOP U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber voted against the sections of the sprawling bill that contained money for their local projects. "While it's encouraging to have secured funding for these important projects to the Sixth District, we cannot hold these dollars hostage to a broken budget routine," Emmer said in a statement.
As last year's deadline to request money for local projects came and went in the House, the only Minnesota lawmakers in the chamber to resist earmarks were GOP representatives Michelle Fischbach and Jim Hagedorn,who died last month. Fischbach's office declined to comment.
"It's important for elected representatives to have a say in this funding allocation instead of having unelected bureaucrats decide where taxpayer money goes," Stauber said in a statement after five projects for his northern Minnesota district were included in the bill.
DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison, who represented the Fifth District before Omar, said during a news appearance with his successor that local funding in the House can be hard-fought.
"I spent 12 years in Congress and I can tell you that getting investments that we need for our city is not easy. You are literally fighting with 434 people to try to get what you need for your community," Ellison said.
Other Minnesota earmarks in the bill include water projects, a new public safety building in Chisholm and education in meat-cutting and butchery to bring more people into the workforce.
"These projects are about using the power of the federal government to improve the lives of Minnesotans," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who helped secure money for 71 projects, during a recent news conference.
As it became clear the money would make its way to Minnesota, leaders and officials cheered the impact the federal dollars would have locally. In Ramsey County, $900,000 will go toward a community violence prevention project pushed by Klobuchar and DFL U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum.
"This provides us the ability to invest in the community interventions that need to happen on a more larger scale," Ramsey County Attorney John Choisaid.
In Minneapolis, Klobuchar, Smith and Omar helped push for $4.6 million for the new East Lake Clinic to replace the clinic destroyed following Floyd's death. While the old clinic was "pretty small," Hennepin Healthcare CEO Jennifer DeCubellis said, it served an essential role for a diverse population. The clinic has reopened in a county building nearby.
"Our teams in particular advocated really hard to say there are some of the biggest health disparities in the community that surrounds East Lake Clinic," DeCubellis said. "And if we're going to hold to our mission and our commitment to making wellness easy and accessible for the community we serve, then this is an essential location for us."
The federal dollars will help cover the costs incurred so far and finish the new site.
"We've been holding our breaths quite a bit," DeCubellis said.