Orange County Branch Newsletter

April 2011

Secretary's Column

Earmarks


It’s dinner time and the evening news is on. The reporter is giving a story about the appropriations committee and something about earmarks. The first time I heard the term “earmark” I thought it had more to do with a hearing condition rather than political maneuvering. Earmarks have gotten a bad name and add “pork barrel” to it and we can only imagine what the waste could be on any given project. Lately we have been hearing these terms used more often as the federal government struggles economically.

The criteria by which some groups such as “Citizens Against Government Waste” will define “pork” spending includes projects that are requested by only one chamber of Congress; not competitively awarded; not requested by the President; greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding; not the subject of congressional hearings; or serves only a local or special interest. Does this mean all earmarked projects are bad economically for our communities?

Currently, there is a self-imposed republican moratorium on pork spending. In checking the “Washington Watch” website, I did a search for requested local projects and found that republican reps have in fact, no projects on the board. But most of us have heard about the “Bridge to Nowhere” proposed in Ketchikan, Alaska that was projected to cost $398 million and would have connected the island's 50 residents and the Ketchikan International Airport to Revillagigedo Island and Ketchikan. Another project considered “pork barrel” is the completed “Big Dig” in Boston, MA that took an existing 3.5-mile (5.6 km) interstate highway and relocated it underground costing $14.6 billion or over $4 billion per mile. These exorbitant projects do little to highlight the usefulness of any worthwhile infrastructure projects which could possibly be funded by earmarked funds.

However, hearing about some of these projects has raised my curiosity, especially since we have such a dire need to complete billions of dollars worth of improvements to our decaying infrastructure. As wasteful as some of the past spending in California appears to have been, imagine one of your projects as an "earmark". In this situation, you now find yourself on the other side of the fence as the engineer and undoubtedly a proponent for the project.

The types of projects proposed as earmark have ranged from social programs benefiting inter-city youth to road, sewer, harbor, and other projects benefiting many. There are earmarks from all types of organizations that are related to everything from different agencies such as Departments of Justice, Labor Education, Health & Human Services and Housing and Urban development. In 2010, almost every State including most of the territories all received some type of youth-related programs earmark for one of these department related which ranged from$100,000 to $2M. Examples are gang prevention, mentoring, Girl Scouts, drug prevention, after school, and child prevention programs. You can clearly argue that there could some very significant benefits of these projects; at least the public works related ones where thousands or hundreds of thousands of people will reap the benefits.

As controversial as earmarks can be, imagine that sometimes the money sits around for a long time unspent. Apparently there is what’s called “orphan earmarks” which happen when money set aside by congress for pet projects is not spent. Senator Bob Casey (PA) wants to put an expiration date on unspent highway “earmarks” by introducing two bills last month: the Redistribution of Unspent Earmarks Act and the Use It or Lose It Act. These two bills would mandate that earmarks older than 3 years be returned to the states to use on any eligible highway project. About 1 in 3 dollars earmarked since 1991 remains unspent due to procedural or typographical errors, as well as environmental and legal issues. In addition, projects which come in under budget which leaves unspent money in a stagnant account is restricted where states can not use it for other projects or priorities.

For 2011, I found that Representative Loretta Sanchez (CA-47) has proposals on various local projects including some that we might be familiar with: Lower Newport Bay, Santa Ana River Mainstem, OCTA, and agriculture for the Great Park. Having varying degrees of familiarity on these projects, they all seem to be worthwhile projects that would benefit many as opposed to pet projects whose goal it is to build some kind of monument to memorialize someone's legacy.

When we hear "earmarks" do we automatically think that the project is "pork barrel" or wasteful? Most likely. But when I take a look at the various project descriptions, I see worthwhile projects in need of funding such as libraries, transportation, groundwater, green building projects and education programs. We as civil engineers know that sometimes it is difficult to obtain adequate funding for our projects as local government agencies struggle to keep afloat. Sometimes the federal government could be the only possible source available to fund these projects. As local agencies are struggle to operate on much smaller budgets due to decreased tax revenues and the state struggles equally or more, we have to seek what funding we can. This means our representatives must participate in the political arena to help make things happen. Other states and representatives are doing it- why shouldn’t we?

Update: I learned that the House Appropriations Chairman introduced a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the federal government until April 8 while cutting $6 billion in spending to prevent a government shut­down. An earlier resolution eliminated $2.7 billion of earmarked programs and projects including those for Bureau of Reclamation, FEMA, and many by Army Corps of Engineers.

For more information on earmarks, you can visit the following website .

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