With the coming of spring in the nation's capital, Congress has begun its annual ritual of producing a federal budget.
While Congressional earmarks represent less than 1 percent of the federal budget, a much higher percentage of the appropriations debate focuses on this topic.
One reason for this is several controversial earmarks and election-year politics. Another is that earmarks have become a metaphor for the federal budget generally. It's a lot easier to talk about earmarks than to address difficult budget issues, such as burgeoning domestic entitlement programs and defense spending.
The term earmark means different things to different people. The classic definition connotes an amount of money added by a member of Congress to the president's budget for a specific project or program.
In my opinion, earmarks are not bad in themselves. In fact, they represent a legitimate exercise of Congress' constitutional power to amend the budget proposed by the president.
Recognizing there have been instances of earmark abuse, Congress has instituted reforms to bring greater transparency and accountability to the process. These include the identification of each earmark's sponsor and a prohibition against earmarks inserted into the budget without public discussion.
Recently, members of the Alaska congressional delegation announced they would post on their Web sites the earmark requests it receives. Gov. Sarah Palin has applauded this decision.
Earlier this year, President Bush and the congressional leadership announced that the total number and dollar amount of earmarks must be reduced significantly.
The Palin administration has responded to this message by requesting 31 earmarks, down from 54 last year. Of these, 27 involve continuing or previous appropriations and four are new. The total dollar amount of these requests has been reduced from about $550 million in the previous year to just less than $200 million.
Further, the governor has insisted that each Alaska request must demonstrate an important federal purpose and strong public support.
We also have heard that, wherever possible, a state or local match should be provided. The state's budget requests incorporate this principle.
So, it is important to note there is no longer a "free lunch" at the federal level. Most federal requests have state or local budget consequences as well.
Meanwhile, the state works closely with the University of Alaska and dozens of local governments and others on the various aspects of the federal budget. These interactions are cordial and cooperative.
We take the position that each entity must interpret the new budget realities for itself. The members of the Alaska congressional delegation are the final decision makers concerning which earmark requests to pursue.
Congressional earmarks for roads and bridges have received much attention in Congress and have become a principal impetus for reform. Unfortunately, Alaska has featured prominently in this discussion.
The Palin administration has responded to this unwanted attention in a number of ways. Certain previous decisions concerning transportation earmarks are being re-examined. Currently, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is conducting an audit to determine the status of all recent earmarks.
In addition, the department will have further discussions with local governments that are interested in particular earmarks. This discussion is precipitated not only by the earmark reforms in Congress but by requirements imposed on all states by the Federal Highway Administration.
The department wants to ensure that sufficient funds are available to complete earmark projects and that such projects are consistent with statewide planning and priorities.
We anticipate even closer communication and coordination with the Alaska Congressional delegation as transportation earmarks are considered.
Palin has said the state can either respond to the changing circumstances in Congress or stick its head in the sand. We believe that by recognizing the necessity for change, we can enhance the state's credibility in the appropriations process and in other areas of federal policy as well.
The governor is very much aware of the importance of the federal budget to virtually every Alaskan. In responding to the new realities, we are not abandoning earmarks altogether but are seeking to constrain and document them in the ways discussed here.
John Katz is director of State-Federal Relations and Special Counsel to Gov. Sarah Palin.
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