Opinion: Truth about earmarks

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008

The truth about earmarks is out thanks to Stan Collender, writing for Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill. Collender also is author of "The Guide to the Federal Budget."

By a vote of 71-29, the Senate recently killed a budget amendment that would have placed a one-year moratorium on earmarks. Not surprising. Ninety-four of 100 senators and 423 of 435 representatives sponsor earmarks. The 18 without were promoting the moratorium to cover their backsides when their constituents ask why they didn't get funds designated to their favorite projects. They, including Sen. John McCain, make it appear that fewer earmarks mean less federal spending.

"The talk that you can reduce federal spending by eliminating earmarks is flat wrong," Collender wrote in Roll Call. "All an earmark does is allocate part of the funds being appropriated. That means that eliminating an earmark only eliminates the allocation and not the spending. The appropriation, the law that actually provides the funds for government to spend, stays at the original level regardless of whether the earmark stays in place."

Sen. Ted Stevens and Congressman Don Young of Alaska have explained that the dispute is over who gets to make the decision about where to spend their money, bureaucrats or the taxpayers who request funds through their elected representatives.

Sen. Stevens has put the heat on earmark opponents. He is listing all earmark requests from Alaskans for 2009 on his Web site. Of the 99 requests listed so far, more than 30 are from boroughs, cities and villages. Many come from public health and education nonprofits, the University of Alaska, the National Guard, plus 31 from the state of Alaska. Do Alaskans agree with critics of Alaska's congressional delegation that these are wasteful "pork"? Hardly.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Young promise to post their requests. That means that other members of Congress will be shamed into doing the same. And when constituents discover they have a chance of getting some of their taxes designated for their favorite projects, there will be an increase in requests and non-cooperating members of Congress will be "retired." Already Sen. Murkowski says she has received 500 requests for earmarks.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has asked the congressional delegation to cut back on earmarks. In that case, Young asks, is the state ready to step up and finance the needs of the 30 Alaska municipalities? Her veto of municipal projects last year says no.

Palin also says Alaskans have to expect less in federal funds and that the old argument that Alaska is a young state and needs infrastructure to catch up won't sell anymore.

Here is a little exercise to employ against critics of federal spending in Alaska: Remind them that 222 million acres of Alaska's 365 million (60 percent) are tax-free federal land, twice the area of California. Some in other states like to say that Alaska federal land is their land, too.

Right. So you want to visit your tax-exempt Tongass National Forest. You get on a plane in Seattle and land at "Nowhere," Ketchikan's airport on Gravina Island. The airport was built by the state and is managed by the local borough, not the tax-free federal government. There is no housing at the airport so instead of traveling on a federally funded road or bridge to Ketchikan, as you do to or from other airports, you take a borough ferry.

Another way to get to the Tongass is to take a ferry from Prince Rupert or Bellingham. The ferries are operated by the state of Alaska and land at a state ferry terminal, not a federal terminal. Or, outsmart the state and paddle a kayak north. You land at the Ketchikan harbor, built and supported by local taxpayers.

The owners of that tax-free federal land in Alaska owe Alaska and Alaskans even more than they are paying now.

That exercise works for all federal land in Alaska. Plus there are other services - health, education, public safety - that Alaska provides to make federal land accessible. Our suggestion is that the governor start defending our state.

Taking a strong stand for Alaska won't reduce the criticism from the Anchorage Daily News and other anti-Alaska journalists. The News has mounted a campaign to defeat Stevens and Young. As part of that campaign it finds the Ketchikan bridge project, once earmarked by Stevens, "poorly justified." That after studies of 18 alternatives (bridge or tunnel) for access began in 1975, four years before the newspaper's owner, California's McClatchy Company, came to Alaska. Palin was in the sixth grade when work began on Gravina access.

Just last week the News ridiculed legislation proposed by Stevens and Murkowski to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration, as it had ridiculed the natural gas pipeline as a risky pipe-dream when former Gov. Frank Murkowski first proposed it.

That follows the newspaper's negative history going back to when its founder and first publisher, Norman Brown, opposed Alaska statehood. Later it questioned the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Then it editorialized that it favored opening ANWR but not logging in Tongass National Forest. Now ANWR is out. Just wait. Opposition to Palin's natural gas pipeline will be next.

Have faith. Governors change. And Ketchikan and its airport access will be prospering long after McClatchy is a distant memory, which may not be long. Immigrant James McClatchy's Irish luck ran out for his heirs on St. Patrick's Day. The company's stock crashed to a new low of $8.33, quite a drop from $76 a few years earlier.



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