The State Journal-Register

April 27, 2006

Lawmakers defend earmarks for state


WASHINGTON -- Illinois lawmakers say congressional earmarks bring hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds each year to benefit state projects - from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield to the Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria.

When it comes to local needs, many of the lawmakers argue that they know best.

"I would much rather have a voice in what goes into Illinois than some faceless federal bureaucrat who has never visited the state," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "I know the state better than any federal employee in this town."

However, critics say earmarks - funds designated for specific projects without competition - encourage corruption and deficit spending. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once referred to appropriations committees as "favor factories."

The earmarking process "is an end-run around the way Congress is supposed to work," according to Mike Surrusco, head of the Common Cause ethics campaign, who said lawmakers are supposed to prioritize projects and spend tax dollars based on need, not political clout.

Earmarks have increased substantially during the past decade and, perhaps not surprisingly, so has the number of lobbyists.

This year, Illinois received $350.5 million from certain earmarks labeled as "pork" by the nonpartisan consumer group Citizens Against Government Waste. That's up from $296.4 million in fiscal 2005. It comes to $27.43 per person in the state, below the national average of $30, said David Williams, the group's vice president.

Compared to other states, Illinois ranked 31st, based on pork per capita.

Alaska has topped the group's pork list in recent years, a feat attributed to the clout of former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Appropriation Committee members typically get more earmarks than other lawmakers, several congressional observers said. Illinois has fared especially well with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Plano, in his leadership role. Reps. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, Mark Kirk, R-Wilmette, and Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Chicago, sit on the House Appropriations Committee.

As the first Illinois senator on the Senate Appropriations Committee in 35 years, Durbin said: "I have an opportunity to help the state. I do it with earmarks. They're very open. There's nothing secret or sinister about them. People know exactly what they're appropriating money for."

Each year, he receives more than 1,500 requests from people around the state and is able to obtain earmarks for about 250 projects, his staff said.

Durbin has said appropriators are taking too much of the heat as a result of the recent lobbying scandals. The now-famous "Road to Nowhere" in Alaska that attracted attention to wasteful spending was contained in an authorizing bill, not an appropriations bill. And in Hastert's district, a fishing tackle box maker benefited from a provision in a recent tax package.

While lawmakers usually are eager to boast about the funds they bring home to their districts, earmarks can be difficult to identify when their sponsors do not report them. Earmark provisions in appropriations bills frequently do not include mention of their sponsors or the names of the recipients.

LaHood and other Illinois lawmakers say they support efforts to make earmarks easier to spot.

"I have no problem putting my name behind these," LaHood said. "I'm for transparency. I'm for openness ... It's the taxpayers' money."

Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, "strongly supports at the very least attaching the name of the requesting member to every single earmark. If that were the case, the Duke Cunningham saga would never have happened and a lot of lesser malfeasance around here would go away as well," Weller spokesman Chris Kennedy said in reference to the conviction of former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., for trading earmarks for bribes.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who like LaHood represents part of Springfield, took three weeks to make public one earmark - $150,000 for the Southeastern Illinois Regional Planning and Development Commission for anti-methamphetamine initiatives.

Shimkus "supports reasonable reforms that will make the public feel secure in knowing that their elected officials are not out for personal gain," said his spokesman, Steve Tomaszewski, noting that Shimkus publicly lists every gift he receives each year, which isn't currently required.

But few local House members are willing to release their fiscal 2007 earmark requests, which were submitted to the House Appropriations Committee last month. Only retiring Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, released his requests for fiscal 2007, which begins Oct. 1. LaHood, Weller and Shimkus refused.

"If municipalities were in a position to politically backstab each other chasing federal dollars, not only would this process be a lot uglier than it already is, but larger and richer cities would probably get every dime over their more needy counterparts," said Kennedy, Weller's spokesman.

Asked for his 2007 requests, LaHood said, "That's a little bit silly. We get a lot of requests. The important thing from the public's point of view is what gets funded."

Yet critics say constituents can't tell whether their lawmakers are making good decisions without knowing what they initially request.

"If these are good projects and everything you are requesting is good for the district, then why are you hiding it from constituents?" asks Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense.