Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

An Earful of Earmarks

The only major memorial at ground zero

From the $223 million for a "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska to Florida Congresswoman Katherine Harris' effort to get a $10-million Navy project for a guy who took her out for a $2,800 dinner, special appropriations known as "earmarks" or "member projects" have become the stuff of scandal and popular rebuke.

In the federal budget, billions of dollars of earmarks lurk in almost every corner. In Tallahassee, earmarks are often called "turkeys" and in past years have included the notorious chiropractor school and a medical school at Florida State University and other big projects like civic centers, often bearing the names of legislators or their relatives.

And in both capitals, the supposedly frugal Republicans now in charge are every bit as bad as Democrats were when they were in charge. The only difference in Florida, besides the number of zeroes in the dollars, is that governors veto a lot of the projects.

"It's not like we just woke up one morning and Santa Claus left us half a billion or a quarter-billion for these projects," says Dominic Calabro, longtime head of Florida TaxWatch. "It came at a cost. The cost was the integrity of the budget process. The cost was the equitable and fair distribution of hard-earned tax dollars."

Calabro says turkeys reflect political power more than priority needs. Tax- Watch produces a "turkey" list every year, and governors going back to Bob Graham have used it to veto individual projects. In Washington, the Committee Against Government Waste produces an elaborate "Pig Book," but it rarely changes anything.

So why do politicians dish out turkey? Because constituents love it. People hate other people's turkeys but cherish their own. And legislators view the size of their earmarks as a symbol of their power.

In January, Florida's Board of Governors, overseer of the State University System, praised Florida's four members of the House Appropriations Committee, especially Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of St. Petersburg, vice chairman and former chairman, for being "steadfast in making sure Florida's universities got their fair share" of research grants -- $90 million in earmarked federal money.

"Congress faced continuing costs for wars, hurricane relief and deficit reduction," Chancellor Mark Rosenberg said (without irony) in a news release, "and so the State University System faced huge obstacles in maintaining our edge in congressionally supported research."

"Earmarks get a bad rap," argues Board of Governors spokesman Bill Edmonds. "But they also fund some excellent, even outstanding, research projects."

More and more projects reflect special pleading from cities and counties and their growing bands of lobbyists. Congressional Quarterly (a sister publication of Florida Trend) reports that spending on lobbyists at the federal level by cities, counties and colleges grew from $10.7 million to $34.3 million between the end of 1998 and mid-2005. The St. Petersburg Times (another sister publication) reported recently that 43 Florida counties hired a total of 478 lobbyists for the 2006 legislative session in Tallahassee, quadruple the numbers from a decade ago, and 126 cities hired 322 lobbyists, about triple in a decade.

Alaska, however, needs no lobbyist in Washington. Its lone congressman, Republican Don Young (no relation to Florida's Young), chairs the House Transportation Committee. Its senior U.S. senator, Ted Stevens, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. Young's committee authorizes projects and programs. Stevens' controls the spending.

Don Young's committee last December finished a six-year, $286-billion authorization of transportation programs, funded largely by gasoline taxes. Nearly $1 billion went to Alaska.

"I stuffed it like a turkey," Young told constituents in Ketchikan (pop. 8,000), the site of one of two huge bridge projects Young funded at nearly a quarter-billion dollars apiece. (The other is at Anchorage.)

Don Young's largesse extends to Florida -- at least when there are contributors to be found. The Naples Daily News says he came down to Naples in February 2005 for a fund-raiser that produced $41,750 in contributions. Young's earmarks eventually included $10 million for an I-75 interchange near some of the contributors' land and developments on Coconut Road. The interchange wasn't on any local government's project list -- but is now because of the federal money.

The full legislation Young ramrodded had 6,137 earmarks and cost $30 billion more than President Bush set as the maximum to avoid a veto. But instead of vetoing it, Bush proudly traveled to a Caterpillar plant in Illinois to sign it because, he said, "there's going to be more demand for the machines you make here."

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.