April 15, 2024

State Budget

An Earful of Earmarks

Budget pork distorts priorities, costs billions, lures lobbyists -- and reaps constituents' gratitude.

Neil Skene | 8/1/2006

Hide and seek

Presidents, unlike Florida governors, have no line-item veto -- not that President Bush has vetoed anything anyway. A decade ago, Congress approved a presidential line-item veto, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. New proposals offer a more complex lineitem "rescission" process.

A line-item veto wouldn't have stopped Don Young's programs, though. They were not in the legislation itself but in a "conference report" produced after the bill passed to explain "congressional intent."

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who wants limits on earmarks, says there were more than 15,000 earmarks in 2005 spending bills, almost four times as many as in 1994, the last year Democrats controlled the House. A fellow Arizonan, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, has persistently challenged earmarks without success and refuses them for his own district. Flake's press aide says only one campaign opponent challenged Flake's failure to bring home pork but soon realized that constituents support Flake.

It's a lesson no one seems to be heeding. Modest change is in the air in Washington, though, because of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Super-lobbyist Abramoff pleaded guilty to three felonies and agreed to testify about trading favors with members of Congress. Most are Republicans, including former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. Duke Cunningham of California, both of whom quit under indictment. A watered-down lobbyingregulation bill would require that sponsors of earmarks be identified.

Florida's Legislature already requires that. It also puts the turkeys in the legislation itself, where governors can and do veto them. (TaxWatch's Calabro approvingly calls Gov. Jeb Bush "Veto Corleone.")

Florida's experience illustrates that the only effective constraint is not rules but the determination of political leaders. TaxWatch actually found no turkeys in the budget in 2003. This year, though, TaxWatch identified 489 turkeys costing $295 million, up about $45 million from last year -- a figure bolstered not only by rising state revenue but, no doubt, by the fact that Senate President Tom Lee and House Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron are both seeking statewide office this fall. Bush vetoed about $151 million worth, among $400 million in total budget vetoes.

Negron, R-Stuart, takes umbrage at criticism of "turkeys." "If a funding request comes from a state agency, it is clothed with a presumption of correctness," he says sarcastically, "but if a legislator comes up with the idea, that's somehow suspect." Legislators know their communities better than state agencies, he says, and member projects are "a reflection of the state's priorities."

Certainly many have merit. Then-Speaker Johnnie Byrd's Alzheimer's center and then-Speaker Lee Moffitt's cancer center two decades earlier leap to mind. But they came with self-perpetuating boards and diminished state oversight. Federal appropriations often are well outside federal responsibility. When it comes to pork, voters are the pigs, and they get slaughtered.

Tags: Politics & Law, Around Florida, Government/Politics & Law

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