Was there a dirtier word in politics this past year than "earmarks"? (Scrabble rules -- "Bush" doesn't qualify.) During the 2008 presidential campaign the term was used indignantly to describe the sneakiest, most sinister money-grabbing device employed by greedy politicians -- a loophole sin on par with golden parachutes. Counter-arguments -- that earmarks represent a small fraction of the overall budget, that they're often the only way to get federal funding for much-needed local-level infrastructure -- were banished to the margins of public discourse.
Responding to populist outrage on the issue, President Obama established new guidelines requiring members of Congress to publicly list their appropriations requests (the official term for earmarks). Over the weekend, Congressional aides scrambled to submit their bosses' Fiscal Year 2010 wish lists by Saturday's 5 p.m. deadline. Judging from the dollar amount, the public scrutiny doesn't make First District Rep. Mike Thompson the least bit sheepish.
In a brief statement accompanying his nearly $400 million list of requests, Thompson defiantly championed the appropriations process. "As economic conditions become more difficult," he wrote, "it is more important than ever that cities and counties get help for public projects that rebuild our roads and bridges, invest in research to protect our agricultural economy, provide flood protection, protect our environment, and rebuild our hospitals and health clinics." Of the $1.2 billion in requests he received, Thompson insisted that the $395 million-worth that made the cut represent "only the ones that are most critical to our district."
Humboldt County -- just one of seven counties falling at least partially within Thompson's tall, skinny district -- got more than $44 million in direct and indirect love from Thompson, including requests for salmon restoration, the Yurok and Hoopa tribes, wastewater treatment projects and $6 million to turn the decommissioned Centerville Naval Facility into low-income housing. Not included, notably, were any requests pertaining to the Humboldt Bay Harbor District or the North Coast Rail Authority. (Both the Harbor District and the NCRA may yet receive stimulus funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.)
Another new requirement under Obama is that earmark requests for any for-profit company be open to competitive bidding. Thompson's not even going there: All of his submitted requests come from public entities and non-profits, and some of the biggest price tags are salmon-related. (Biggest up here, at any rate. His single largest proposal -- to complete a massive flood-control project on the Napa River -- was for $92 mil.) Among the salmon solicitations is a $10 million appeal on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to fund the Salmon Stronghold Partnership Program, which aims to protect and restore salmon habitat by focusing conservation efforts on "salmon strongholds" -- those watersheds most likely to affect survival of the beleaguered fish.
Take the Klamath River salmon, beset in recent years by a parasite called Ceratomyxa shasta, which has lead to declining salmon runs. If granted, a $1.5 million request for U.C. Davis would fund more research on the nasty bugger. Another $4.5 million for Davis would finance a review of existing hatchery operations on the North Coast and Central Valley.
But, wait -- we're talking about Klamath salmon here. Why doesn't HSU get that money instead of Davis? Perhaps because HSU lacks an adequate marine science center. A $413,000 request from Thompson would finance a feasibility study for HSU's proposed North Coast Salmon and Marine Science Center, an outreach and educational facility that would house researchers from across the country. "The objective would be to gather a lot more information about how flows of fresh water, sediments and nutrients into the Pacific littoral are affecting the life, even the survival, of fish stocks," HSU spokesman Paul Mann said in an e-mail to the Journal. He added that the center won't be built unless the study finds that it is indeed feasible.
Moving down the list we see a $5 million proposal on behalf of Caltrans for HP3. "It stands for Humboldt People Powered Pathways," explained Jennifer Rice, co-director of the Natural Resource Services Division of the Redwood Community Action Agency. HP3 advocates non-motorized transportation and is working to enhance local pathways like the Hammond Trail and the proposed Annie and Mary Trail from Arcata to Blue Lake. Rice called the group's inclusion on Thompson's list "a pleasant surprise" and said the money would be used to remove and replace the Hammond Trail bridge. "It seems like a good, stable structure," she said. "It's really not." The heavily corroded bridge is leaking toxic heavy metals into the water below, she said, and flakes debris with just one whack from a ball peen hammer. The group's grand vision is a well-maintained trail system connecting McKinleyville, Blue Lake, Arcata and Eureka.
That southern terminus -- Eureka -- may get help with its Martin Slough Interceptor wastewater project. A $1.5 million request would help fund the collection and conveyance system that was originally proposed way back in 1980s. Back then, the thought was that it could be financed through the Clean Water Act, but other projects took priority and the city has been seeking other funding sources since the late 1990s, according to Eureka City Manager David Tyson. "Thompson and [Senator Dianne] Feinstein have both been champions of the project," Tyson said Monday. The Martin Slough Interceptor will reduce incidences of sewage overflows into Humboldt Bay. "It's very important, and very expensive," Tyson said -- about $25 million if built today. But it's worth it, he maintained. In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, the project would provide jobs and facilitate growth. "Without this project in place," Tyson said, "areas that have been planned by the county would not be able to move forward."
Other projects on the list include a $3,540,000 request to expand and remodel the Hoopa Valley Tribe's health clinic; $250,000 to expand the tribe's KIDE Radio emergency broadcast system; and $3 million for construction of a Yurok Social Services Center. Hoopa Valley Tribe Health Director Mihail Soare said the impetus for the health clinic project was a master plan conducted four or five years ago that found the clinic would need 40 percent more space by 2015. The problem with that assessment, Soare said, is that the predicted growth was predicated on increased funding from Indian Health Services. "I don't see the IHS funding growing to match this assessment," Soare said. He feels the tribe has more urgent priorities, like its senior nutrition facility. "The building is very old, and we're spending money every year fixing the roof and the floor," he said. "It's not safe." According to Tribal Chair Clifford Marshall, the tribe sent in roughly $63 million-worth of stimulus requests, so perhaps that could help matters. "We're trying our best to get funding for projects that have just been sitting around," Marshall said.
St. Joseph Hospital spokesperson Courtney Hunt-Munther said the hospital is on a similar quest to fund its new $127 million patient-care tower. "We're looking for any and every way that we can get help funding [the tower] ... and one of the ways is through the appropriations process," Hunt-Munther wrote in a statement prepared for the Journal on Monday. The hospital submitted a $1 million appropriations request for the 2009 fiscal year and a $2 million request for 2010. "We are also still looking at the federal stimulus package," Hunt-Munther wrote.
There may be a long battle ahead over these earmark requests -- all earmarks, in fact. The Wall Street Journal recently speculated that "a potential showdown looms" between Congress and President Obama, with groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense opposing all earmarks outright. Even if things go smoothly, the appropriations process likely won't wrap up until after Oct. 1 -- the start of the government's fiscal year. Maybe by then, D.C. spin doctors will have established some new dirty words.