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Pork or praiseworthy? County benefits from earmark spending

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
March 17, 2009
— Earmarks have a bad rep.

Spending projects that members of Congress attach to unrelated bills have come to be synonymous with wasteful spending.


But hold on.


Consider the $951,000 that Sen. Herb Kohl recently attached to the omnibus appropriations bill, which President Obama signed last week.


Yes, that was an earmark, said Kohl spokeswoman Dawn Schueller.


But was it pork-barrel spending?


The money goes to Blackhawk Technical College, the tech school that is responsible for retraining hundreds of laid-off workers in Rock County.


Rock County, of course, is suffering the worst unemployment rate in the state, in no small part because of the loss of jobs at the Janesville General Motors plant and related businesses.


So is that wasteful?


Not even a staunch critic of the earmarking process, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, would say so.


"Many taxpayer-funded projects have merit. I strongly support efforts to fund job retraining programs for displaced workers in our community," Ryan said.


"It is not a battle against earmarks. It is a battle about the process," Ryan said.


Ryan and fellow Janesville native Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have proposed legislation that would allow the president to send earmarks back to Congress for a vote.


Ryan said that bill would fix the problem he sees with earmarks: that members of Congress don't have to justify them. If sent back for separate votes, those projects would be subject to debate and scrutiny, which is Congress' job.


"When you have a system that's out of control, when you have members of Congress in jail because of selling earmarks, there's something wrong with this system," Ryan said.


He was referring to California Republican Randy Cunningham, who went to prison for taking bribes to steer the government to certain defense contractors.


Kohl has supported earmark reform, but he hasn't decided to join the Feingold-McCain-Ryan effort, the so-call Janesville Line-Item Veto, Schueller said.


And no, neither Ryan nor Feingold attached any earmarks to the omnibus bill. But many others did, about 8,500 times. Wisconsin alone is scheduled to receive nearly $103 million in earmark benefits, for projects such as a trolley car line in downtown Milwaukee to a dental clinic for low-income people in Medford.


As for Kohl, he said his earmarks are good ones.


"We are able to do many good things for Wisconsin through these investments and feel fortunate to be able to direct desperately needed funding to worthwhile projects," such as the BTC retraining money, Kohl said in a statement.


"We thoroughly vet each request that comes to this office, make decisions free of special interests and publicly announce each project that receives funding," Kohl said.


But earmarks' reputation remains a sore spot, prompting a variety of reforms in Congress.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week joined House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., in announcing internal reforms.


From now on, when a House member requests an earmark, the appropriate executive branch agency will be given 20 days to review the project to ensure it is eligible to receive funds and meets goals established in law, the lawmakers announced.


And any earmark going to a for-profit entity will have to go through competitive bidding.


And members will have to post their earmark requests online and to certify that neither they nor their spouses would benefit financially.



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