On Nov. 18, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a voluntary ban on pet projects known as earmarks to take effect when they take chamber control in January. Local officials worry what this means for projects under way in Cullman County.
Earmarks have long been used by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to deliver funding for special projects in their home states and have accounted for about $16 billion of the $3.5 trillion federal budget in recent years.
While the federal ban on earmarks does not affect the ability of economic development agencies to acquire specialized grant funding for projects, several recent projects in Cullman County have been made possible by direct appropriations from U.S. Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, and Congressman Robert Aderholt.
According to North Alabama Regional Council of Governments (NARCOG) director Neal Morrison, losing the ability to acquire funding for projects in the area by means of direct earmarks may have a devastating effect on the area.
“Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the nation and we utilize earmark funding for a number of things in our state,” said Morrison. “I think what people fail to realize when they start talking about earmarks being a terrible thing, is that 90 percent of this money goes to good projects that encourage localized growth and development.”
Morrison contends that obvious abuses have taken place due to the ability of lawmakers to insert line items in bills for spending on specific projects in their home states, but locally earmarks have only encouraged growth.
“People seem to forget that many of these earmarks have been used in Cullman County to bring industry to the area that may not have otherwise come,” said Morrison.
Work on County Road 222 near Topre Corp. was provided by direct earmark funding, according to officials. Cullman County Economic Development Director Sammie Danford is concerned that a ban on earmarks will hamper the completion of that project among others.
“One of the reasons that Topre agreed to locate here was the work on County Road 222,” said Danford. “The work on the interchange is on hold now, because we’re still several million dollars short of where we need to be on the project.”
Danford said that the hindrance of this project limits the ability of development agencies to further recruit industries to the area.
Beyond local economic development, earmark money has been appropriated locally to fund improvements within volunteer fire departments, law enforcement agencies and other first responder units.
Most recently, law enforcement agencies in Cullman were provided with $2.25 million in grant fund appropriated by U.S. Rep. Aderholt for upgrades to radios and equipment. Prior to the federal ban on earmarks an additional $750,000 in funding to be appropriated by Shelby was pending approval.
“We typically submit requests for direct appropriations in February,” said Danford. “In March of this year we were notified that there was a hold— as of now all of these projects will be on hold.”
Statewide earmark funding is used for a number of things including heavily supporting universities and research organizations in Alabama in recent years.
“Funding that goes to Alabama colleges that allows our state to better compete in higher education is also going to be affected,” said Morrison. “We may see higher education revert to the way it was in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s when only Ivy League schools were aided because of powerful alumni in government.”
Morrison noted that direct earmarks by Alabama Senators have been integral in success of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s extensive and respected departments of medical research.
“This is money that was appropriated by lawmakers that is now being used to search for cures to life-threatening diseases and to provide quality education to Alabama college students,” said Morrison.
According to an Associated Press article published earlier this week, Alabama’s U.S. Senators Sessions and Shelby are at odds over the issue of the earmark ban. U.S. Sen. Sessions, a co-sponsor of the bill cast a yes vote for the ban, a measure he sees as an effort to cut back government spending across the board. U.S. Sen. Shelby, who has steered hundreds of millions of dollars in earmark appropriations to Alabama, cast a no vote.
“He is proud of funding he’s brought back to Alabama for math, science, and engineering education, as well as for meritorious projects that will improve law enforcement and crime prevention, promote national security, and continue our nation’s space exploration activities,” said Shelby spokesman Jonathan Graffeo in an e-mail.
U.S. Rep. Aderholt shared a similar sentiment in a prepared e-mail to The Cullman Times on Friday.
“For many Americans, the earmark process has become a symbol of why Washington is broken. However for myself, the use of earmarks has proven to be an effective way to assist many rural communities across the 4th Congressional District of Alabama,” the representative said. “During my service in Congress, I have requested funding for worthy north Alabama projects in an open manner which makes sure the process is transparent. Earmarks make up less than 1% of the annual budget and nearly all of the money would be spent by federal agencies anyway. The most effective way to reign in the government deficit is to reform bureaucratic and entitlement spending. The founding fathers rightfully gave Congress the power of the purse in the Constitution. One of the fears that I, along with other members of Congress, have in simply handing earmark power to the Obama administration is that the majority of federal taxpayer dollars may be distributed to states with large urban cities, like New York and California, and rural states like Alabama may simply be left out.”
The representative also said that though he doesn’t view earmarks as the root of the problem, he will abide by the moratorium and will join House Republicans in an effort to end the corruption of those earmarks that are unethical in nature.
‰ Sam Rolley can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 225.