Canton Repository

February 4, 2007

Dem 'earmark' ban halts Regula projects

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service


WASHINGTON Mercy Medical Center in Canton was counting on $700,000 in federal funds secured by U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula to renovate and expand its emergency department.

It won’t be getting the money.

Nor will more than two dozen other area hospitals, universities and other organizations receive the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in federal largesse that Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, told them was on the way.

In response to congressional scandals involving earmarking abuses, the now-Democrat-led House last week passed a $464 billion, 2007 catchall spending measure that does not contain any earmarked spending previously approved for local projects, according to Democratic leaders. The Senate plans to take up the measure this week.

Earmarks are instructions that lawmakers place in bills to allocate federal money to local projects or to benefit political supporters. Their use has increased dramatically in recent years.

The practice, usually hidden from public view, became an issue in the fall campaigns after ex-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., was convicted of taking more than $2.4 million in bribes in return for steering defense earmarks to contractor friends.

Ex-Rep. Bob Ney, R-Heath, is not accused of trading bribes for earmarks. But he is going to prison after pleading guilty to accepting gifts from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others in exchange for taking official actions on behalf of their clients.

If Republican congressional leaders had succeeded in passing all 11 of their spending bills last year, there almost certainly would have been billions of dollars in local projects contained within them.

Instead, Congress managed to pass just two, leaving the other nine dangling. Democrats won control of Congress in November, partly on the strength of the case they made against Republican mismanagement and corruption. One of the first orders of business was to pass the remaining spending legislation.

The new Democratic heads of the congressional appropriations committees — Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — agreed to impose a moratorium on earmarks this year with the expectation of revisiting the issue when they begin crafting next year’s budget.

That meant all the projects that Regula, a once-powerful GOP appropriations chief, had written into spending bills passed by the Appropriations Committee but never cleared by the full Congress fell by the wayside.

LOSS HITS ORGANIZATIONS

“We’re disappointed,” said Lynne Dragomier, a vice president of marketing and public relations at Mercy.

The hospital had sought a $700,000 earmark from Regula to help pay for a $12 million renovation and expansion of its emergency department.

Like some others who will not be receiving earmarks after all, Dragomier said the lost funding is only a small part of the total price tag and won’t stop the project.

“It’s an important project for Mercy,” she said. “This will mean that Mercy needs to find other resources.”

The hospital plans to begin construction next year. Dragomier said the hospital may tap its own funds or seek private donations to replace the lost funding.

During the six years he ran an appropriations subcommittee responsible for education, health care and job program funding, Regula used his clout to steer tens of millions in federal dollars to projects in his district and Northeast Ohio.

Now that he’s in the minority, Regula expects to have far less access to any future earmark funds than in the past.

“If you’re not chairman (of a subcommittee), it makes quite a difference,” he said.

While the 2007 spending bill does not contain explicit earmarks, some believe that lawmakers will find a way to get their desired local projects funded, anyway.

Former Senate staffer Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project in the Center for Defense Information, said he’s certain lawmakers will contact federal agencies and insist their projects get funded even without written instructions in the spending bill.

“I bet you (congressional) staffers are making these calls (to agencies) starting yesterday,” he said. “It’s the system.”

Regula denied this will occur.

And he said neither he nor his staff would press any federal agencies to fund the projects he had placed in legislation.

“I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about,” he said of Wheeler. “That’s not going to happen.”

“There are no earmarks, period,” Regula said. “Agencies have their own programs, their own priorities, and they’re not in the business of picking out specific projects.”

HIGHWAY PROJECTS AFFECTED

Stark County highway projects and an after-school program in Massillon also are threatened by the earmark cutoff.

But local officials say not getting the funding is not so serious.

“We never count on those until we get them,” said Paul Jaeger, technical director at the Stark County Area Transportation Study.

He acknowledged that one of the planned projects — the widening of Alabama Avenue between Elton Street SW in Sugar Creek Township and Orrville Street NW in Lawrence Township — probably won’t go forward without the $1 million in funding Regula had sought.

But that’s because it’s a “pretty low volume road” and not a high priority, he added.

Two other projects that were to receive a combined $1 million in earmarked funds — reconstruction of the Tremont Avenue bridge in Massillon and improvements to the Fulton Drive-Wales Avenue NW intersection in Jackson Township — are expected to continue.

“Some of that money (not received in earmarks) will be made up by local money,” he said.

The Massillon-based AHEAD Foundation, which helps pay for an after-school program and other services for high-risk students in the Massillon City Schools, was looking forward to its first earmark from Regula.

Regula put a $100,000 earmark in a spending bill last year for the programs that serve several hundred kids in the elementary and middle schools.

Vanessa Stergios, executive director of AHEAD, said the funds would have replaced an expiring federal education grant.

Now, she said, the Massillon schools will reapply for the education grant.

And what if that fails?

“We will continue to look for other places to get funding,” Stergios said. “I’m optimistic that we will find funding somewhere.”

Millions in projects cut from bill

WASHINGTON Millions of dollars in federal spending that U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, had reserved for local projects last year is not coming through after Democratic congressional leaders erased earmarks from a spending bill passed last week.

By type of project, the funding that has been axed includes:

HIGHWAYS

n $1 million for shoulder widening on Alabama Avenue between Elton Street SW in Sugar Creek Township and Orrville Street NW in Lawrence Township in Stark County.

n $500,000 for replacement of Tremont Avenue bridge in Massillon.

n $500,000 for widening and safety improvements to Fulton Drive and Wales Avenue NW intersection in Jackson Township.

PARKS

n $500,000 to purchase 110 acres in Bethlehem Township for a park along Ohio & Erie Canalway.

n $500,000 for city of Green to acquire eight acres to add to 197-acre former Southgate Farm.

BUSINESS

n $2.55 million for second phase of fuel cell research for SOFCo-EFS of Alliance and Rolls Royce Fuel Cell Systems.

n $2 million for Timken Co. project to develop system to improve energy conservation in manufacturing.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT

n $1 million for flood protection project for Louisville.

HOSPITALS AND HEALTH

n $750,000 for YMCA of Central Stark County to renovate Canton YMCA.

n $700,000 for Aultman Hospital to furnish a hospice center.

n $700,000 for Mercy Medical Center to renovate and expand its emergency department.

EDUCATION

n $800,000 for Stark State College of Technology for health and sciences project.

n $700,000 for Malone College for nursing facility.

n $700,000 for Walsh University for public-health education center.

n $700,000 for Mount Union College for renovation and expansion of education and wellness facility.

n $100,000 for AHEAD Foundation after-school program in Massillon.