Both chambers of Congress adopted a two year ban on congressionally directed spending for the current session that’s winding down.
Earmarks, the pet projects of lawmakers that the federal government picks up the tab for, came under scrutiny because of projects like a would-be bridge between Gravina and Ketchikan. Dubbed the bridge to nowhere, it became the poster child of runaway spending.
And since then, lawmakers in both parties have railed against them. But veteran appropriators like U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski call the approach is misguided.
“We have taken an approach that I think is designed to be more of a public relations thing: You got to convince the public we’re cutting the budget. We are not cutting spending. We’re letting the executive branch determine the priorities,” she said.
Sen. Murkowski voted no Wednesday when her party put the earmark ban up for consideration in a closed-door meeting. Senate Democrats have yet to decide whether to reinstate earmarks.
“That’s too bad,” U.S. Senator Mark Begich said of the Republicans’ decision.
Sen. Begich said he’ll work to remove the ban because the spending is essential to infrastructure projects in the state. Though, he said, with shrinking federal coffers, Alaska needs to pony up its share for projects, like improvements to the Seward Highway.
“You look at the need on that road, the safety hazard it is, it’s going to take a lot of money. The state is going to have to put a little more money than they have in the past,” he said Thursday evening.
Earmarks rarely account for more than one percent of the overall federal budget. Most spending goes to entitlement programs and the Defense Department. All of those, including Medicare and Medicaid will come under scrutiny in the coming debate on corralling the federal deficit.
Alaska receives more federal aid than any other state; more than twice the U.S. average in 2010. The state is also richer than it’s ever been before, said Juneau economist Gregg Erickson.
And despite the state’s financial health – the permanent fund is worth 42 billion dollars and the state operates in the black – local issues can’t always get the money they need.
“Well they’re [earmarks] a very big deal for the village that is seeing its coastline destroyed and may need $20,000 per resident to move that village to some place where it can be sustained,” Erickson said. “It’s a very big deal, because that’s probably not going to be a project that’s going to garner the type of support to go through the normal course of things.”
Whether or not both parties in both houses of Congress opt to reinstate earmarking, the state will continue to receive billions of dollars in federal money for the military, health care and transportation. Some local projects, though, may be more difficult to fund than others.
It’s up to the Congressional delegation to prove to their colleagues that it’s worth the taxpayer’s dime.