Leading Question

By Forest Balderson March 1, 2011


Earmarks, sometimes referred to as “pork barrel” spending, are those controversial government funds that legislators use to funnel money to their favorite projects, often by tacking them onto unrelated bills when no one is looking. (Alaska’s failed $200-million-plus “bridge to nowhere” is probably the most famous example of the practice gone awry.) They were a big topic of discussion in 2010 when Republican lawmakers voted to ban them (the bill was shot down in the Senate last November) and haunted us right into the New Year. In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama vowed to veto any legislation containing earmarks.

Still, earmarks are not going away that easily, and some legislators and their constituents say they have value. As Politico reported, “The fact that lawmakers refuse to declare an end to earmarks shows a lingering conflict between their calls to cut spending and what many see as a key priority in their jobs—taking care of their states and their districts with line items that fund roads, bridges, sewers, military installations and local universities.”

But whether you are a fan of earmarks or a fan of their ban, local projects in Sarasota and Manatee counties have received these funds. We wonder how many residents would have turned down the money for these five projects.

Sarasota VA National Cemetery. In 2008, Rep. Vern Buchanan brought home $27.8 million for the Sarasota VA National Cemetery. About 97,000 veterans live in the 13th Congressional District. Before the local facility opened, the closest veterans cemetery was in Bushnell, Fla.—more than 100 miles north of Sarasota. Wesley Jones, director of the Sarasota VA National Cemetery, says, “Families are relocating loved ones on average of one or two per month, some all the way from New Jersey.” A $15.9 million expansion of the cemetery began earlier this year and is expected to be completed by summer 2012.

13th Avenue Dream Center. Last year, Rep. Kathy Castor secured $250,000 in federal dollars to help build the 13th Avenue Dream Center next to Norma Lloyd Park in Bradenton. The $2 million facility opened its doors in June 2010. Castor’s office estimates that more than 250 low-income and at-risk youth benefit from the center daily, and families receive help for problems such as illiteracy, drug abuse, crime and teenage pregnancy.

Port Manatee. In 2008 and 2009, Buchanan and Castor successfully co-sponsored $5.5 million for Manatee Harbor, primarily for dredging and maintenance of Port Manatee. Castor’s 2010 earmark brought home another $100,000 for the project. The port brings more than $2.3 billion dollars annually in regional economic impact and more than 24,000 jobs.

The dredging of Wares Creek. Between 2008 and 2010, Buchanan brought in more than $14 million in funding for the flood control project on a nearly three-mile section of Wares Creek from Manatee Avenue to Cortez Road in Manatee County. Phase I of the dredging project is expected to begin in the spring of this year. Phase II will begin in the fall, and Phase III, the summer of 2012. The plan is expected to reduce annual flood damages by at least 57 percent. The completion date is expected to be in early December 2013.

Phillippi Creek septic replacement. A total of $1 million in federal funding was secured in 2008-09 by Buchanan for the Phillippi Creek program. Used to help 15,400 homes and businesses connect to central sewers and prevent further polluting of Sarasota Bay, phase I of the $4.1 million program began in May 2010 and is expected to be completed by October of this year.

How will these sorts of projects receive funding now that the President is on board to ban earmarking? Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, says, “Lawmakers are still going to try to get money for their pet projects back home. In some cases they will write letters and call federal agency officials and try to cajole them into spending on this or that. And in the most extreme cases, powerful lawmakers will try to write legislation that seems generic but in fact directs the funding to their project.”

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