A Plant Grows Near the 'Burgh

W.Va. Projects Among Those Targeted by Earmark Freeze

Fri December 22, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Tom Breen - ASSOCIATED PRESS



CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) After a campaign in which he embraced the title “Big Daddy” for his ability to bring federal money to West Virginia, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd has announced that billions of dollars for lawmakers’ pet projects will be stripped from spending bills next year.

That puts millions of dollars for West Virginia projects in limbo until October 2007 at the earliest, when the next fiscal year begins.

Byrd, who will be chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the next Congress, has announced with his House counterpart, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., that there will be no congressional earmarks in forthcoming spending bills.

Earmarks are congressionally mandated projects such as grants for local governments, universities, hospitals, and roads that aren’t included in the president’s spending proposals. Congress has traditionally been able to earmark funds for projects anonymously — which critics charge is a way to avoid taking heat over “pork barrel” spending.

Byrd, along with fellow West Virginia Democrats Rep. Alan Mollohan and Rep. Nick Rahall, successfully ran for re-election this year partly on their ability to bring home federal money.

Now, many of the projects they touted will have to wait until late next year to see if they’ll be funded.

For example, an $89 million earmark has been set aside for the construction of a federal prison in McDowell County. The facility was expected to employ 330 people and generate approximately $35 million for the local economy. Earlier this year, President Bush attempted to remove the earmark from a spending bill, only to be fought by Byrd, among others.

If the prison isn’t built, “That would be devastating to us,” said Ron Wyatt, president of the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce. “We’re counting on that to spur our economy.”

Still, despite the nine-term senator’s role in the freeze, “We’re still confident in Senator Byrd,” Wyatt said Dec. 13.

Byrd Spokesman Tom Gavin said money for projects isn’t necessarily lost, just delayed.

“Senator Byrd wants to do all he can for West Virginia, but the people of West Virginia expect Congress to have some sanity in its budget appropriations process,” Gavin said Dec. 13.

A call seeking comment was left with Mollohan’s office. In a statement, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the state’s lone congressional Republican, criticized what she called the partisanship behind the announcement.

“We can be both fiscally responsible and responsive to the needs of our communities,” she said.

The sheer number of earmarks, and the dollars involved, are impressive. In a single week in July, Byrd trumpeted, among other grants, $50 million for the FBI Fingerprint Center in Clarksburg, the McDowell County prison funding and $2.7 million for park improvements in Charleston. A week later, his campaign heralded $1.4 million for an access road in Beckley, $5 million for U.S. Route 35, $1 million to restore the Mercer County War Memorial and $2.3 million for the Morgantown airport.

It’s hard to say what projects will be affected by the freeze, which Byrd and Obey said is necessary to restore order to the “fiscal chaos” left by the outgoing Republican majority.

Federal grants to housing and transit authorities will still be funded, and some of the money set aside in pending bills for earmarks will be shifted to programs Democrats said are underfunded, such as health research and local law enforcement.

But many lawmakers will have to reapply for funding when Congress takes up the 2008 budget — which will happen after reforms of the earmarking process are put in place.

The incoming Democratic leadership team has said it wanted to change the way earmarks are handled to make the process more transparent and lawmakers more accountable.

Robert Rupp, a political science professor of West Virginia Wesleyan College, suspected the Democrats are more interested in changing the process than eliminating the spending altogether.

“Are they against earmarks, or are they against secret earmarks?” he asked. “My guess is they’ll probably come back and look at the secrecy and the process rather than throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Having once pledged to become “West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry,” Byrd has helped earmark an estimated $2.2 billion for the Mountain State since 1995. During this year’s campaign, Byrd seemed to revel in the role of rainmaker, referring to himself as “Big Daddy” in an August speech dedicating the $48 million biotechnology center at Marshall University that bears his name.

“He didn’t start it, but he embraced it,” Gavin said of the “Big Daddy” tag.