February 26, 2009 - Bend Bulletin US Spending Plan: What’s In It For Us?

Mar 02, 2009

February 26, 2009 - Bend Bulletin  US Spending Plan: What’s In It For Us?

U.S. spending plan: What’s in it for us?
Thousands for roads, renewable energy and low-income families could be directed to Central Oregon, though the Senate must pass its own bill
By Keith Chu / The Bulletin

Published: February 26. 2009

WASHINGTON — Local governments will see nearly $2 million for water conservation, renewable energy and low-income families directed to Central Oregon through earmarks attached to a $410 billion spending bill.

The bill passed the U.S. House 245-178 on Wednesday largely along party lines. It funds the federal government through the 2009 fiscal year, which ends in September. The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the so-called omnibus bill next week.

Earmarks direct spending to specific projects at the request of a lawmaker. They’re often derided as a vehicle for unnecessary pork projects and as a way for members of Congress to reward contributors.

Supporters of the tactic, though, argue that politicians are sometimes better positioned than bureaucrats to spend government money and that they fund worthy projects that would otherwise escape the government’s notice.

Deschutes County received the biggest earmark in the region: $570,000 to begin extending 19th Street from Redmond south six miles to meet U.S. Highway 97 at Deschutes Junction. But the federal money won’t solve the county’s dilemma about how to pay for the road, said county Road Department Director Tom Blust. The money is only a fraction of the $5.3 million the county requested. The total project cost is estimated at $7 million.

“I’m not sure what $570,000 is going to buy us,” Blust said. “I’m sure it was intended for the construction of the project, but we really don’t at this point have any other funding source for that project.”

Last year, the county received a roughly $500,000 earmark to perform preliminary work on the road. The project is needed to provide an alternate route to Redmond’s growing south side, as well as the Redmond Airport, according to the county.

In the next four years, the department plans to set aside $2 million of federal timber payments to go toward that project, Blust said, but that still leaves the county millions short of its goal.

County officials are investigating whether they can save that money until the county is ready to begin construction on the road, Blust said.

The Deschutes River Conservancy didn’t expect to receive the $145,000 earmark it will see this year, said Executive Director Tod Heisler. It’s the first federal appropriation the conservation group has received since it was reauthorized last year.

“Frankly I didn’t expect we’d get anything out of ’09,” Heisler said. “We have to give all the credit to (former Sen.) Gordon Smith and his staff. That was one of the last things they did last year, was go to bat for us and get us into that appropriations bill.”

The conservancy’s board hasn’t decided which project that money will fund, but it will go to water conservation, in some form or another, Heisler said.

On Tuesday, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, said he would like President Barack Obama call for earmarks to be removed from the bill. Walden received a handful of earmarks in the spending measure, including Deschutes County road projects.

On Wednesday a Walden spokesman, Andrew Whelan, said the congressman isn’t opposed to earmarks. Rather, he would prefer the government keep spending down by funding programs at last year’s levels through something called a continuing resolution. Continuing resolutions usually don’t contain earmarks.

“What the Republicans suggested to (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi is just do a continuing resolution as opposed to a whole new omnibus for the rest of the year,” Whelan said. “That would be one place to start, is not increasing the government budget by over 8 percent from last year.”

Central Oregon governments that didn’t see their projects funded in this bill have already submitted their requests for the next federal spending plan. Work on that bill is expected to start this spring, after Obama releases a detailed budget request. He was scheduled to release a budget outline this morning.

Despite early indications that the next budget will include far fewer earmarks than this one, the city of Bend has sent five earmark requests worth nearly $75 million to Walden and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden. After missing the deadline to submit House earmark requests last year, the city is asking for money to upgrade its drinking water treatment plant, expand the wastewater treatment plant, upgrade the intersection of Murphy Road and U.S. Highway 97, and redo curbs and bus stops to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, said Courtney Kleinert, assistant to the city manager.

Bend’s City Council decided on the list at a goal-setting retreat earlier this month, Kleinert said.

“That’s what these represent: … those top capital improvement project priorities for the city,” Kleinert said. “They also all relate back to economic growth, not only to jobs on the ground right away, but also long-term growth for the city.”

Walden and both senators plan to post the earmarks they request this year online, their offices said. Walden was the first Oregon member of Congress to make his earmark requests public, for the 2008 spending bill.

The senators plan to have their requests posted by next month, said Wyden’s communications director, Jennifer Hoelzer.

“We have begun the process of going through the hundreds of requests we have received and our goal is to begin putting them on the Web site by March 9,” she said.

Madras is once again asking for about $10.7 million to reduce the number of accidents at the southern ‘Y’ of U.S. Highway 97, entering the city, said City Manager Mike Morgan. The intersection needs traffic lights and other improvements to cope with the 17,000 cars that pass through on the busiest days, he said.

“We maintain this is an Oregon and a national road issue; this is not a Madras issue,” Morgan said. “To have one of the least-rich communities in the state of Oregon trying to solve a state and national highway issue is craziness.”

Morgan said Madras’ earmark request bears no relation to the much-maligned Alaskan bridge that’s often held up as an example of how earmarks waste taxpayer money.

“Unlike a Bridge to Nowhere,” Morgan said, “this is a road to everywhere.”

Keith Chu can be reached at 202-662-7456 or at kchu@bendbulletin.com.


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