Peoria Journal Star

December 14, 2006

Area projects in jeopardy as earmarks frozen

Funding for Glen Oak Zoo's second phase, OSF project and others on hold




WASHINGTON, D.C. - Supporters of local projects, from the Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, have had their hopes of federal funding for this year dashed.

The bad news came this week when incoming Democratic congressional leaders announced plans to kill "earmarks" until Sept. 30, the end of the 2007 federal budget year.

Earmarks are funds designated by lawmakers for local projects without competition - what critics call "pork."

The decision "puts a big kink" in plans to construct the next phase of a new Africa exhibit at Glen Oak Zoo, said Jan Schweitzer, Peoria Zoological Society director of development. The society is in charge of raising money to expand the

zoo. The announcement kills the zoo's chances of receiving $500,000 that was included in a House-passed bill at the request of Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria. The Senate never voted on the bill.

"This will hurt us a little bit," acknowledged Schweitzer, who said the zoo wants to raise up to $7 million for a new visitors' center and an African "lodge," a key feature of the new exhibit.

The society is trying to raise $32.1 million to increases the size of the zoo from 7 acres to 24 acres. The expanded zoo will feature 100 species of animals with 150 large animals on exhibit. Currently, the zoo has 73 species, with 100 large animals on display.

At the Lincoln library, the decision eliminates the hopes for funding to build a new storage building but won't affect day-to-day operation of the library-museum complex, said spokeswoman Jill Burwitz.

"It's certainly something we would love to have" she said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had included $1 million for the Lincoln library, but the full Senate never passed the bill. The House included $300,000 for the library.

Grappling with budget problems, Democratic leaders earlier this week announced plans to pass a single funding bill to carry the federal government until the start of the 2008 budget year.

"There will be no congressional earmarks," Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., said in a joint statement released late Monday. They head the House and Senate appropriations committees.

The Republican-led Congress adjourned last week after failing to pass nine of 11 funding bills for fiscal 2007, which began Oct. 1. Instead, Congress passed a stopgap measure to keep the federal government running at last year's levels until February - the same time that the budget process for 2008 is supposed to start and President Bush is expected to ask Congress for more money for the war in Iraq.

"There is no good way out of the fiscal chaos left behind by the outgoing Congress," Obey and Byrd said.

They added that earmarks included in this year's bills will be eligible for consideration in 2008 after reforms in the earmarking process are made.

Speaking to reporters in Springfield Wednesday, LaHood, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he is disappointed with the Democratic leaders' decision.

"There was a lot of money for Illinois in that budget," said LaHood, adding that he has been passing the bad news to people in his district, which includes the Peoria and Springfield areas.

"They're good projects. They're projects that wouldn't ordinarily get funded because people don't have the resources to do it," LaHood said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and is a strong supporter of earmarks. Nonetheless, he supports the incoming chairmen's decision to temporarily block earmarks.

"I'm confident that the reforms we are putting in place will lead to greater accountability and transparency and help restore the trust of the American people in the federal spending process," Durbin wrote in a letter explaining his position to his constituents. He also pledged to continue to support worthy projects in Illinois.

White House Budget Director Rob Portman called the overall budget decision "disappointing."

"There's still more than nine months remaining in the fiscal year, and we believe that we should be working through the remaining bills to achieve the best results possible for the American people," said Portman.

Longtime earmark critics say taxpayers will benefit in the long run.

"This is going to enable projects and programs to award funding based on project merit rather than political muscle," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Most Americans would like to see that their tax dollars are spent wisely and efficiently. Instead, what we've seen in the past is members of Congress steering dollars back to their pet projects and their pet programs."

He noted that most earmarks take money from other projects rather than adding to the overall funding level. Earmarks also are criticized for the secrecy that surrounds them.

Earmarks came under increased scrutiny this past year when former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., went to prison for taking bribes in exchange for earmarking funds for defense contractors. Some local earmarks were approved this year in the defense and homeland security funding bills, which were the only ones to pass both the House and Senate and to be signed into law.

Other local projects that were slated for funding in House bills that never passed the Senate include:

- $900,000 for the Children's Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria for an ongoing construction project.

- $1.7 million for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete construction of the East Peoria Flood Control Project.

- $500,000 for Lakeview Regional Museum for the proposed new Downtown Peoria regional museum. (The Senate committee included $250,000.)

- $500,000 for Bradley University's renovation of Westlake Hall.

- $300,000 for Heartland Community Health Clinic equipment and facility expansion.

- $250,000 for continued construction of the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center.

- $200,000 for improvements to Bel-Wood Nursing Home in Peoria County.

- $100,000 for Illinois State University for Tapping Future Leaders program.

- $400,000 for the Illinois River Basin Restoration project.

- $500,000 for the Corps to complete a flood control plan along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

- $100,000 for Lincoln College to provide new ways for teachers to reach today's students.

- $1 million for construction of a new water treatment facility in Virginia, Ill., in rural Cass County.

The list of projects was provided by LaHood's office.


Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or Dana Heupel can be reached at (217) 788-1518 or