Connecting state and local government leaders
The revival of what critics deride as "pork" yielded $2.7 billion for localities this year. Now they're looking to secure even more of the federal cash. “We've had dozens of communities across our district submit requests,” says one House lawmaker.
In Boonsboro, Maryland, a town of roughly 3,500 people, officials were distressed to discover last year that a lot less water was coming out of a local 58-year-old drinking water reservoir than was going in.
Another test found that the ground around the reservoir was unusually saturated, and when the dive team from the local fire department went to take a look, they confirmed what town officials feared. Cracks in the concrete and the reservoir’s deteriorating lining were leading to 15,000 to 25,000 gallons of water leaking out every day.
“If you think of a glass of water, a third of it was going into the ground,” town manager Paul Mantello told Route Fifty.
However, this year’s return of controversial earmarks, in which a portion of the federal budget is set aside for members of Congress to hand out for pet projects, proved to be a boon for Boonsboro, with the town receiving $1 million to replace the leaky reservoir. In other communities across the country, it’s a similar story.
The earmark process was banned in 2011, with critics deriding it as wasteful government spending that sent money to projects based less on need than on having a friend in Congress. But the return of it in the fiscal 2022 budget passed by Congress and signed by President Biden last month, has reopened a major spigot of federal dollars.
As in billions of federal dollars. According to congressional data, lawmakers sent local governments $2.7 billion for 1,874 projects. And that’s on top of billions that states and localities are getting in the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
‘Like A Little Tsunami’
On Capitol Hill, there’s more earmark funding in the works. House members have deadlines later this week to submit up to 15 requests each for billions more in the next budget—that’s up from a limit of 10 requests last year.
Local governments are vying to get their share from the next round for new sewage plants, transit lines and other projects.
“We've had dozens of communities across our district submit requests,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat, told Route Fifty in a statement. Bustos, who serves on the influential House Appropriations Committee, secured $55 million in the last budget—the most among House Democrats, according to a New York Times analysis.
“It’s been like a little tsunami,” Leslie Pollner, co-leader of the Washington lobbying firm, Holland & Knight's local government group, said of the push by localities to secure forthcoming earmarks. Pollner said the firm has seen a “substantial” increase in local government clients, with localities looking to get the infrastructure and Covid relief funding, and now earmarks.
Earmarks, she noted, are “a much more streamlined process” than applying for federal grants. “It has really opened up possibilities for local governments,” she added, especially smaller municipalities that may not have the staff to navigate complex federal grant programs.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also taking notice. Tom Wickham, the business group’s senior vice president of state and local policy, said the Chamber’s local chapters could get more involved in seeking earmarks for local governments as they become more aware that the money is available. He pointed out that support for the funding appears to be bipartisan with members of both parties sending federal dollars home.
Jason Groth, deputy director of planning and growth management for Charles County, Maryland, which was able to get $5 million in the most recent budget with the help of the state’s Democratic senators, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, noted that unlike federal grants the dollars go directly to communities instead of through states.
Not all localities have a way to get in on the earmark action. Some are locked out if their members in Congress are refusing to participate in a process that they see as wasteful spending.
But for those who are receiving the funding, earmarks are helping pay for a wide array of projects, according to the House Appropriations Committee’s website.
Charles County’s earmarks, which also had the support of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat who represents the area, will go to studying and designing a 19-mile light rail or rapid bus line linking the county to the subway system that serves Washington, D.C.
The project could be transformative for the county, Groth said, spurring new development that would change it from “a bedroom community” to more of a destination.
Earmarks are also providing $2 million to renovate a historic courthouse in Merced County, California, $1.2 million to upgrade a wastewater treatment plant in Galesburg, Illinois, and $1 million to demolish the site of a vacant former high school in Peoria, Illinois.
The hundreds of other earmarks funded in this fiscal year also include:
- $1.5 million to beautify pavement and lighting in Avondale, Arizona’s historic downtown
- $500,000 for Tempe, Arizona to buy a motel to house the city’s homeless
- $33,000 to renovate a police station in Milton, West Virginia and $118,000 to help the rural town buy more police cruisers
- $2 million to add three natural turf soccer fields, a lighted basketball court, exercise equipment, an art walk and restrooms at a park in a low-income area of Anaheim, California.
Criticism Hasn’t Ended
The push to halt earmarks has been backed over the years by critics who see the process as a flawed product of Washington’s insider, or “swamp,” political culture. Often cited is a $223 million earmark Alaska’s congressional delegation secured to build a massive bridge for a city so small that the project was derided as the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
But supporters of bringing back the practice have argued that it helps grease the gears of Congress, enabling lawmakers to notch funding wins for specific projects in their states and districts and in return gaining their support to move broader legislation, like budget packages.
In resurrecting earmarks, congressional Democrats enacted a number of reforms, including capping the amount of federal discretionary spending available for them at 1%.
Most significantly for localities, the money cannot go to for-profit entities. Under the new rules, the so-called Community Project Funding can only go to states, localities and nonprofit groups. Members of Congress must also attest that they will not profit from an earmark. And they must post online what earmarks they are requesting.
All told, earmarks in the most recent budget totaled about $9 billion.
Last year, nearly all the requests submitted by members of Congress were approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees, said Pollner, with the lobbying firm. But with earmarks capped and requests submitted by House members on the rise, it remains to be seen whether all will make it into the next budget deal.
“Fingers crossed,” she said.
Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that has been critical of earmarks in the past, said the reforms have brought some improvements. The ban on the money going to for-profit entities has “severely curbed defense earmarks—where a lot went to [defense] contractors in the past,” Ellis said.
There are still some concerns though, he explained. For example, communities like Mobile, Alabama, represented by well-positioned members of Congress like Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, have an advantage over others.
Shelby obtained far more in earmarks than anyone else in Congress, sending $551 million back to his state, according to The New York Times analysis. The funding haul included $100 million to expand and renovate an airport in Mobile.
Other lawmakers, particularly Republicans, remain wary of the process and are refusing to get onboard with it.
“At a time of record debt, it is more important than ever to eliminate unnecessary and wasteful spending once and for all,” Portman said last year in a statement when he and other GOP lawmakers introduced a bill to permanently ban earmarks.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, one of the nine other Republican senators who joined the unsuccessful effort, said that “There’s no reason to go back to the old days of politicians pigging out on taxpayer dollars,” citing the Bridge to Nowhere project as an “infamous” example.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, has also voiced reservations and has not yet submitted any earmark requests.
“Senator Hassan is focused on protecting taxpayer dollars and rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse,” her spokeswoman Laura Epstein, said in a statement to Route Fifty. “There have been legitimate concerns about how Congressionally-directed funding has been misused in the past, and she wants to see whether the safeguards added to the process work.”
In many cases, communities with senators who are protesting earmarks can reach out to other senators or House members with their pleas for funding. (Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire’s other Democratic senator, secured $69 million in earmarks, according to The New York Times.)
But in some parts of the country, that’s not an option. In Texas, both of the state’s Republican senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, did not seek earmarks, and neither did 17 members of the House from the state, the Times analysis shows.
The Texas Municipal League did not return inquiries. The offices of Mattie Parker, the Republican mayor of Fort Worth, and Austin’s Democratic mayor, Steve Adler, both in Texas congressional districts where neither their representative in the House or their Senators sought earmarks, also did not respond to inquiries.
Wide Range of Local Projects
Billions in federal infrastructure and Covid-19 relief spending that is already flowing to the state and local level, raises questions about whether localities really need the earmark money.
But Bustos, the Illinois congresswoman, argued that while ARPA and the infrastructure law are making “historic” investments in states and localities, large federal programs do not always align with needs at the local level.
“Community Project Funding allows members of Congress who are deeply tied to the communities they serve to advocate for and bring home results in the most direct and meaningful way possible,” she said. “It’s not a one or the other situation—they are complementary approaches to ensure our communities are set up for success.”
Boonsboro’s Mantello said the town has other needs for the ARPA and infrastructure dollars. “We have miles of cast-iron pipes with lead joints to replace. I can go on and on,” he said.
Without the additional earmark dollars for the town, he said, replacing the reservoir would have meant borrowing money and hiking water rates for residents.
Tempe, located just east of Phoenix, last year bought a 40-room motel to house the homeless. With the $500,000 it received in the last round of earmarks, the city is planning to buy a second one to provide shelter, Tempe Mayor Corey Woods said in a statement.
“And then our Human Services staff can work with individuals and families to access social services and more permanent housing,” he said.
The earmarks funding allows the city to move ahead with the purchase faster than if it had to come up with the money on its own, he added.
Woods, a Democrat, said the city is trying to get more earmark funding in the upcoming round. The city has asked Arizona’s Democratic senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, and the area’s Democratic congressman, Greg Stanton, to help get the city three additional grants.
That money would go for affordable housing, to build an underpass by Arizona State University and to encourage more people to find alternatives to driving alone.
Lloyd Pareira, Jr., chairman of the board of supervisors in Merced County, California, also said his community’s needs exceed funding that the federal Covid aid and infrastructure programs are providing. The Great Recession put the county behind in maintaining its buildings and roads and the infrastructure and ARPA dollars are helping as “we’re trying to catch up,” he said.
But without $2 million obtained by the area’s Democratic congressman, Jim Costa, the county would not have been able to afford to go ahead with repainting and other repairs to its courthouse.
The courthouse, built in 1875, is so associated with the community that it is part of the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce logo, said county spokesman Mike North.
“We really want to preserve it,” said Pareira, who doesn’t see the money as a waste. “With taxes being so high,” he said, “it’s good to have more money coming back home.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.