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Using political back door to fund projects

Saturday, March 21, 2009  
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By Thomas V. Bona
BusinessRockford.com
Mar 21, 2009 @ 08:53 PM

If not for federal earmarks, Rockford might still be waiting for construction to start on its new U.S. courthouse. Planners might not have recently finished a commuter-rail study. And officials might not have gotten the money to finish a study of work needed around Alpine Dam.

“Essentially, you’re cutting through the red tape and the inordinate amount of time it takes to get through the federal process with an earmark,” said Steve Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which handles many transportation funding requests for Winnebago and Boone counties.

Rockford got six earmarks totaling $1.7 million in the recently passed Omnibus Appropriations Act, the federal government’s major annual spending legislation. They include the Alpine Dam study and several education projects.

Earmarks — a provision in a spending bill that directs money to a specific project — make up less than 2 percent of the final act, but they continue to draw fire from opponents. Critics say it’s a way for a politician’s pet project, such as Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere, to get federal funds without stringent vetting.

They also say they’re awarded based more on political clout than on merit.

“Everybody can point to a good project” that gets an earmark,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks congressional spending.

“Nobody can tell me it’s the best project or the most important project or that there’s some other project that’s just as good left on the cutting-room floor because it was carried by a freshman congressman who has no juice.”

Rules have tightened in recent years, requiring legislators to be identified with every earmark request they make. By next year, members of Congress will be required to post their requests on their Web sites.

U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo’s office requests nine or 10 earmarks a year, totaling up to $3 million. He’s somewhat conservative, he says, so most of his requests get through.

“The appropriations committee recognizes that and gives us what we ask for. What I don’t like to do is ask for a lot of stuff and disappoint a lot of people,” the Egan Republican said. “You can have all the clout you want. If an earmark is unworthy and a piece of junk, it has no business being funded by the taxpayers.”

Taxpayers for Common Sense ranked Manzullo 240th of 435 House members in the number and value of earmarks in this year’s budget.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., ranked 10th in number of earmarks and 14th in value in the 100-member chamber. Illinois ranked sixth in earmarks received and 21st in value.

Durbin requests more earmarks than are approved, trying to bring federal tax money home. He prioritizes requests and feels he submits only worthy ones. If taxpayers think he’s sponsored a wasteful project, they know whom to blame.

“We felt from the start that transparency was the answer here,” he said.

Ernst hopes the Rockford area can draw more earmarks to spur growth because of its high unemployment rates and low per-capita income. Having ties to three powerful Illinoisans — President Barack Obama, Durbin and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood — could help the region get noticed more.

“I don’t see the unfairness because we have been demonstrating need in our region for so long that it’s almost like our turn has come,” Ernst said. “It kind of goes in cycles.”

Reach staff writer Thomas V. Bona at 815-987-1343 or tbona@rrstar.com.

What Rockford’s getting
These projects have been earmarked in the federal budget:

Alpine Dam: $526,000 to continue and complete a feasibility study of the work needed to provide reliable flood protection along Keith Creek. This will complete the feasibility study on the Keith Creek watershed in Rockford. Sponsors: Rep. Don Manzullo and Sen. Dick Durbin

Discovery Center Museum: $300,000 for improved science education for rural and underserved children through space and astronomy programming. Sponsor: Durbin

Crusader Community Health: $238,000 to help Crusader implement an electronic health records system at its health clinics. Sponsor: Manzullo

University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford: $238,000 toward the 58,000-square-foot building expansion project, which will house the National Center for Rural Health and Education. Sponsor: Manzullo

Rockford College: $238,000 to purchase new science equipment and other classroom technology. Sponsors: Durbin and Manzullo.

Our Children’s Homestead: $200,000 to provide tutoring and assistance for at-risk youth within the foster system. Sponsor: Durbin

Go to earmarks.omb.gov for a full listing of fiscal 2009 earmarks.

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