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Congress may resurrect earmarks. In some states, they never went away

Elaine S. Povich, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- When Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and California legislative leaders needed a handful of votes last year to push a gasoline tax hike over the finish line, they turned to a well-tested, yet widely disparaged, tool: "earmarks" for wavering lawmakers' pet projects.

They agreed to fund nearly $1 billion worth of special items, from $100 million for a University of California, Merced parkway project (to corral Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray), to a $400 million extension of the Altamont Corridor Express commuter rail line (to win the support of Republican state Sen. Anthony Cannella).

Brown defended what he called the "arrangements" as a way to push through a much-needed increase in the gas tax, which is expected to raise $5.2 billion annually over 10 years for roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything as big as this particular transportation bill," Brown told reporters after the late-night vote. "So I would say some of the arrangements that were entailed in this process, they may look large, but relative to $52 billion, it's all pretty modest."

The U.S. Congress placed a moratorium on the use of federal earmarks in 2011, hoping to curb wasteful spending. But in California and some other states, they never went away. Many state leaders argue that inserting money for local projects into broader bills isn't wasteful -- it's an indispensable tool for winning votes. They say earmarks promote bipartisanship and break gridlock.

Now President Donald Trump and some lawmakers from both parties are calling for a revival of federal earmarks as a way to address the dysfunction in Washington. As Congress weighs the issue -- it held hearings last month -- the experience of states is instructive.

 

The California lawmakers who got money for projects in their districts defended the deals as beneficial to their constituents.

"This effort will certainly benefit the entire state by improving our dilapidated roadways, but my focus has always been ensuring my district is a participant in California's growth," Cannella said in a statement.

But critics, mostly opposed to raising the gas tax altogether, called the giveaways unseemly. A group of Republicans is currently mounting a petition drive to put a measure to scrap the gas tax hike on the November ballot.

Congress stopped using earmarks following the disclosure of some especially egregious abuses. At the behest of Alaska lawmakers, for example, Congress in 2005 earmarked $223 million to link Ketchikan to the island of Gravina, home of only 50 souls, and already served by a ferry. Outrage over money spent on a Bridge to Nowhere ensued.

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