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Democrats and Republicans in Congress could divert nearly $1.5 billion from states for local funding.
Thanks to congressional earmarks, states like Maine and Washington may get tens of millions of dollars more this year in funding for clean drinking water and to prevent water pollution. But other states like Texas may get tens of millions of dollars less.
In all, earmarks would lead to 36 states losing water funding to members of Congress’ pet projects. According to a recent estimate, Texas would lose $42.3 million. Among the other big losers are Missouri, which estimates it would lose about $28 million; Indiana, about $25 million; and Illinois, nearly $14 million.
“I think it’s shortsighted,” said Republican Texas state Sen. Charles Perry, who led a bipartisan group of 31 of the state’s senators in protesting the loss of money in a letter to the heads of Congress’ appropriations committees last month.
Perry, who is the chairman of the state Senate’s Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee, wrote that the Texas Water Development Board receives requests for about seven times more funding for water projects than it has money for. Last year, for instance, it received $500 million in water funding and received $5.3 billion in funding requests. “With earmarks pulling from the state’s expected funding,” he wrote, “more projects will go unfunded.”
The issue is a complex one stemming from Congress’ decision in 2021 to restore earmarks, in which a portion of the federal budget is set aside for members of Congress to spend on projects in their home districts. 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. The newly restored earmarks come with some reforms, though, including capping the amount that can be spent at 1% of the federal budget.
Congress is deeply divided over the deep cuts being pushed by House Republicans as they try to reach agreement on a spending bill by the end of the month. But one thing they agree on is to take the $1.47 billion in proposed water-related earmarks out of the funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
The way Congress is planning to pay for earmarks would benefit 14 states, particularly Maine, according to the analysis by the Council of Infrastructure Financing Authorities, or CIFA, which represents the state agencies that administer the water programs. That’s because their state and local governments would receive much more in earmarks than the amount of funding their states would be losing.
Maine would be the biggest winner. In the budget proposal passed by the Senate’s appropriations committee in July, the state’s senators—Susan Collins, the top Republican on the committee, and Independent Angus King—were able to divert $42 million in earmarks for clean water projects, including $7 million for the town of Livermore and $5 million to the town of Hartland to upgrade their wastewater treatment facilities.
“This funding would support critical updates to wastewater systems across the state, helping communities thrive for years to come,” Collins said in a press release. Because of the earmarks, the state would receive about $53.5 million more, according to the analysis by CIFA.
Another winner would be Washington state. The Senate’s bill, for example, includes $5 million in earmarks requested by Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic chairwoman of the appropriations committee, for projects like improving the Snoqualmie Pass Utility District’s wastewater treatment plant and another $3.4 million to upgrade the Salmon Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Murray, in a press release, said she “worked hard” to get the funding for her state in the Senate’s proposal. “This bill makes incredibly important investments to protect our kids from breathing polluted air or drinking contaminated water, protect keystone species like salmon—which are so important to Washington state—and the pristine public lands that make our state so breathtaking,” she said.
Other states aren’t as lucky. Thirty-six will be losing funding to essentially pay for earmarks in the other states, according to Deirdre Finn, executive director of CIFA. “When you divert money from some states to pay for projects in other states, it's really unfair,” she said.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, for instance, estimated that under the Senate proposal the state would receive $35.5 million through the clean water fund. That would be $8.5 million, or 19%, less than it got last year. The state would also receive $13.8 million in drinking water funding, a $19.3 million or 29% decrease from last year.
Apart from the amount funded in the annual budget, states are separately getting $43 billion a year for water programs from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Missouri, for instance, received about $147 million last year in the additional funding.
The state, though, would still be losing millions of dollars because of the earmarks. And even with the infrastructure act’s funding, Missouri officials said the state will fall far short of receiving the $20.6 billion in water infrastructure funding it estimates that it will need over the next 20 years. In addition, the infrastructure act funding will run out in three years.
“Federal funding for congressional earmarks should not come at the expense of federal funding for [State Revolving Funds],” a department spokesperson said.
Missouri would lose more funding under the House proposal, which would only spend 5% as much as the Senate on the water programs.
Critics of the earmarks argue that diverting the money for pet projects means Congress, instead of states, would be deciding where the money is most needed.
Reducing states’ funding “displaces projects selected and prioritized by states based on risk to human health, protection of water quality and affordability,” Jeff Walker, CIFA’s president, wrote in a letter to congressional leaders last week. “Funding congressional earmarks instead of these prioritized state projects jeopardizes public health.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Kery_Murakami