LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Let the games begin

December 12, 2005

Randy "Duke" Cunningham's resignation from Congress has kicked off the political version of musical chairs, as lawmakers scramble for the resigned Rancho Santa Fe congressman's spot on the House Appropriations Committee.

A seat on Appropriations gives a lawmaker considerable power – not only over how Washington spends money, but also over how much of it winds up in his or her home state. As one might imagine, the competition for the seat is fierce.

Seniority, geography, connections, leadership potential, fundraising prowess and just plain likability all come into play when lawmakers angle for such a coveted assignment. This particular contest proves interesting because it pits the committee's chairman against House leaders, and a Riverside congressman against a South Carolinian.

Rep. Ken Calvert, the Inland Valley Republican who's been in Congress almost 14 years and who holds a relatively senior post on the House Resources Committee, has it clinched in the connections department: Supporting Calvert is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands.

The South Carolinian who also wants the seat – Republican Rep. Joe Wilson – is a relative newcomer, having been in the House barely six years. But he has his own edge: He's an active campaigner and an assistant whip, and therefore tight with GOP House leaders who want to give him the committee seat. Moreover, leaders feel they owe Wilson because they passed him over for a committee spot last year.

Other House Republicans who want to sit on Appropriations are Joe Bonner of Alabama, Pat Tiberi of Ohio and Henry Brown of South Carolina.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

As if officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't have enough on their plate, now California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are insisting on knowing just how prepared the disaster agency is – or isn't – for a major California earthquake.

"We are concerned that FEMA is not prepared and may not even have a plan," the two senators wrote in a letter calling for a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. "After seeing FEMA's slow response . . . to Hurricane Katrina, we want to make sure that a similar tragedy does not happen if a major earthquake occurs in California."

The White House recently responded – merely by providing a copy of a generic national emergency plan that fails to speak specifically to a catastrophic California quake, said Boxer spokesman David Sandretti.

"The national response plan was written in December 2004, before Hurricane Katrina, and it obviously failed with regard to the Gulf Coast," said Sandretti, whose boss plans to call on FEMA today to create a specific, updated quake plan for the Golden State. "We have serious doubts that FEMA is prepared to handle a major earthquake in California."

IT'S THAT TIME OF YEAR

Cities and counties are discovering what sort of money Washington is sending their way. As Congress puts the final touches on the fiscal 2006 federal budget, various spending bills are rolling through the Capitol and to the Oval Office.

On the law enforcement end, there's $200,000 for the San Diego County Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement (SAFE) Task Force to monitor and apprehend sexual offenders, and $150,000 for the San Diego Family Justice Center.

In the water department, there's $1.9 million for the North San Diego County water recycling plant; $375,000 for beach restoration in Encinitas and Solana Beach; $1 million to bring the San Luis Rey River flood-control project closer to completion; and $3.8 million to build the Murrieta Creek flood-control project; $1.5 million for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which the institute will share with the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observation System at the University of Southern California.

As for transportation, Boxer recently announced that San Diego-area light rail projects are getting more than $27 million in a spending bill the president signed Nov. 30. The bill includes $12.2 million for the Oceanside-Escondido rail corridor, $7.7 million for the San Diego Mission Valley light rail extension and $7.2 million for the Mid-Coast Light Rail extension.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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