in Houston, Texas

Goat research, marksmanship training for military among 'earmarked' Texas projects approved by federal lawmakers

adapted from photo by flickr user Steve Wampler
Thursday, Apr 15, 2010, 12:02AM CST
By Mark Lisheron

In 2006, a year after Citizens Against Government Waste helped make Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere infamous, U.S. lawmakers reached as deep as they ever had into the proverbial pork barrel and pulled out $29 billion worth of goodies for the people of their districts.

This year that figure is just $16.5 billion, according to the conservative citizens spending watchdog, down from about $19 billion in the previous year. In this 20th anniversary year of calling out the pork barrel politicians with a detailed report they call the Pig Book, there is measured celebration. Keep in mind, David Williams, vice president for policy with Citizens Against Government Waste, says, politicians in this past year found something called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the distribution of more than $850 billion.

"There is a lot more work to do, and the message in this report is that the Republicans are complicit in this," Williams said. "Even with members of Congress and lobbyists in jail, these people are still willing to risk their political lives for these ridiculous earmarks." 

The timing of the 20th-anniversary edition of the Pig Book could not come at a more opportune moment for Citizens Against Government Waste. Frustration with the federal government has coalesced around spending considered out of and beyond the control of the people paying the bills. This frustration has found its voice in Texas, which will this year receive 395 earmarked projects worth $406 million.

"Pork barrel spending has for a long time been the poster child for this kind of federal spending, probably the most abusive spending we have, because it is hidden," U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R- Austin, said. "But I think people are more and more realizing that this is a broken and corrupt process in need of a principled stand on the issue."

McCaul first took his principled stand in 2008, by refusing to request that funding be directed to his district until the House of Representatives agreed to put each and every earmarked project to a yes-or-no vote and that every sponsor and recipient of the money be made public.

Last month, House Republicans joined McCaul in a one-year moratorium on earmarks. House Democratic leaders declined to go along with a moratorium, and the Senate failed to pass a similar moratorium measure.

Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy for the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, said the public is growing weary of that kind of legislative inaction. Taken as a whole, the list of 395 Texas earmarks this year represents a system of spending that allows local governments to accept large sums for projects they could almost certainly not get passed if they asked their own constituents to pay for them.

"It is time for people to ask whether it is appropriate for the federal government to be distributing this money," Heflin said. "Most egregious are all these earmarks of $1 million or less, the kind of money no one notices in Washington. People become accustomed to it, it becomes routine. We accept the freebies from the federal government, and it all adds up."

The adding in Texas begins with $13.5 million for the first phase of a pilot training complex for U.S. and NATO jets at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, all the way down to $40,000 for technology and equipment for the Bastrop Police Department.

Among the more intriguing earmarks are:

  • $3 million for the Air Force for a Critical Languages and Cultures Initiative
  • $2 million for a marksmanship skills trainer for the Army Reserve National Guard
  • $2 million (in two earmarks) to rehabilitate the South Orient Railroad in San Angelo
  • $1.7 million for cotton research for the Department of Agriculture
  • $1.5 million for a rural law enforcement project at Tarleton State University 
  • $500,000 to enhance the collection of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth
  • $500,000 to assess health behaviors in the community of Kelly by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District
  • $200,000 for a policy analysis by the National Secure and Sustainable Food, Fiber, Forestry and Energy Program
  • $200,000 for goat, dairy and meat research by the Department of Agriculture

See also this searchable list of all projects in Texas, and this key to the abbreviations.

Database preview

When the CAGW published its first Pig Book, identifying 546 projects worth $3.2 billion, it was with the single-minded purpose of shaming Congress into giving up the practice of earmarks. As the practice has grown - more than 9,100 projects worth $16.5 billion - Citizens Against Government Waste has beaten a drum for transparency. Most congressmen now claim their earmarks, but this year 81 projects valued at $6.5 billion are anonymous.

REP. CHET EDWARDS: ELIMINATING EARMARKS WOULD ERODE LOCAL POWER

Among the projects conspicuously absent from this year's list was nearly $500,000 for a water tower for Grandview, a city of 1,300 people on I-35 about 35 miles south of Fort Worth.

The city council of Grandview in February did the almost unheard of and voted unanimously to tell Washington to keep that big hunk of bacon, as council member Bill Pannell calls it.

The Grandview water tower, Pannell says, is a classic example of everything wrong with earmarks. Several mayors ago, local officials got the idea that putting up a water tower with the name Grandview on it for everyone on I-35 to see would be a fine advertisement for development. The problem was, the consulting engineer hired by the city to assess such a project concluded in writing that Grandview had five times as much water storage as it needed. What the city really needed was new water pipes and new water sources, Pannell said.

Pannell, who is a full-time utility superintendent, joined the Grandview City Council in 2008 knowing almost nothing about the water tower project. It wasn't until he joined the city's public works commission that he learned that former city officials had asked for a tower that wasn't needed and that it had been procured from the federal pork barrel by U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.

Out of what Pannell called a very emotional meeting came a resolution rejecting what the council called irresponsbile pork barrel politics. "The city of Grandview does not believe such funding is ethical or Constitutional," the resolution read.

At the time, Edwards defended the earmark for Grandview as his response to a request by a past local administration. On Tuesday, Edwards said he has reduced his use of earmarks by 50 percent since 2007 and has supported measures to make the process more transparent. Edwards, a member of the House Budget Committee, did not, however renounce the process.

“While I believe we should reform and reduce earmarks and eliminate wasteful projects, we should not throw out the baby with the bath water," Edwards said Tuesday in a written statement.  "Eliminating earmarks that account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget would not reduce the deficit by a dime. Instead, it
 would take power away from local communities that should have the right to have a voice in bringing some of their tax dollars home for high-priority needs."

At their meeting, Grandview council members worried openly that such a stand might anger representatives like Edwards who could retaliate at a time when Grandview legitimately had high-priority needs, Pannell says.

"In the end we decided that you don't act out of fear," he said. "I believe these earmarks are wrong, even if it's good for Grandview, because they're bad for the country."

The Grandview Council made history with the rejection of what, in the larger picture, was a very small sum of money, according to Michael Quinn Sullivan, founder and director of the conservative Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. On this rare occasion, an elected body eschewed the central earmark notion that somebody is going to get that money so it might as we be us, Sullivan says.

"I think there is a growing recognition that the problem with pork-barrel spending originates with each of us," Sullivan said. "Someone has to be willing to step off the merry-go-round."

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org. Photo of a a hand grabbing money by flickr user Steve Wampler.

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