Along the Tracks

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

’Porkbusting’ begins at home

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina should, and will, be met by action from the private sector and the federal government. However, where the private sector is willingly financed by the millions of people who drive America’s economic engine, government funds are acquired by coercion – also known as taxation.

If we, as taxpayers, wish to see a noble and important cause – the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast – funded by the federal government, our voices should also be heard as we demand accountability for those funds.

Finally, if we (rightly) demand accountability for those reconstruction funds, we should demand accountability for other project funding appropriated by Congress using our tax dollars – and, through deficit spending, the tax dollars of our children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, Congress has developed a shameful system of appropriating funds for projects outside of the normal process. These special appropriations, often called “pork,” avoid the scrutiny of the media; local, state and federal departments charged with using the money; and even congressional colleagues – a sort of “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy for the waste of public money.

Citizens Against Government Waste has tracked pork-barrel spending since 1984, and has developed specific criteria for projects to earn the designation “pork.” The term does not say anything about the inherent worth of the project, the group maintains. Rather, it points to the fact that the project needed special action by a congressperson to make it into a spending bill. Value judgments for these projects are in the eyes of the beholders.

For example, some of the 50 residents of Gravina Island may believe a bridge from their village and air field to mainland Alaska is worth $223 million of your hard-earned money, but, surprisingly, local, state and federal experts could not be convinced this was so. Instead, U.S. Rep. Don Young slipped funding for the “bridge to nowhere” into the recently passed highway bill. Oh, he also inserted funding for another bridge servicing handfuls of people in the future, this one a bargain at $200 million.

You, my friends, will be paying for those bridges.

While the Alaska examples are particularly expensive, similar projects in every state not high enough on priority lists to be funded by proper channels are nevertheless given federal dollars. Here in Ohio, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is getting another influx of your cash, $350,000 worth, despite the fact it is a privately-run enterprise. A number of study projects and grants under the auspices of “agricultural research” are given millions in federal money despite the fact those requesting funds through normal channels did not believe these projects as worthy as others.

Ultimately, for federal spending to get back on track and for our dollars to be spent efficiently, we must all demand the practice of pork barrel spending be stopped.

This is easier said than done – not just for congressional representatives, but for you and me as well. I live and primarily cover news in Ohio’s 5th Congressional District, represented by Paul Gillmor of Old Fort. Rep. Gillmor has brought home the bacon to local communities, just like other members of Congress. While these projects may be “worthy” in the eyes of many – especially the local officials and contractors who benefit – they are pork, failing to stand on their own merits for federal funding. By appropriating federal dollars for these projects, we are denying federal dollars to other local projects which may well have been more worthy – and clearly were of higher priority to local, state and federal officials. What’s more, by taking part in this luau of pork, we have no standing to demand reform of a system that, when taken as a whole, actually provides less money overall for local projects than would otherwise be available, as those with more power than Rep. Gillmor rake in many more of your dollars for places like West Virginia and Alaska.

We can make a start right here in Ohio, right here in the 5th District. Here are a few local pork projects which, if eliminated from the federal budget, could help pay for the important work which needs to be done along the Gulf Coast in the years to come:

Maumee Watershed Hydrological Study = $1 million
Maumee River Basin NOAA Study = $1.5 million
Emerald Ash Borer Research = $250,000
Van Wert Juvenile Delinquency Prevention = $250,000
Sandusky Wastewater Infrastructure = $1 million
Hicksville Wastewater Treatment Plant = $300,000
Auglaize sewer system – Defiance/Paulding counties = $200,000
Defiance sewer separation project = $300,000
Northwest Ohio Regional Information System (AFIS) = $200,000

Listed above is a cool $5 million – all meeting the definition of pork. I can’t emphasize enough: This does not mean the projects are not “worthy” or useful. It means federal dollars could not be justified for these projects using the same competitive procedures other projects faced.

Work might slow on some of the above line items, if the money were removed. Others might not happen at all. A few might find other sources of funding, through the state or locally. A couple might even move up on the priority lists and get funded through proper procedures.

Yet, in the grand scheme of things, many other unknown local projects would begin sooner, those underway would move faster and more tax dollars would get focused into northwest Ohio if pork was canned for good and the system of appropriation reformed.

I’ve had some thoughts on that. Meanwhile, we need to start somewhere. Contact U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor and ask him to commit to giving back some of our local pork to offset the expenses of Gulf Coast rebuilding. Also, contact senators Mike DeWine and George Voinovich and request that they too pledge to return some of the pork-barrel dollars they’ve pulled into Ohio. For all three, press them to commit to appropriations reform!

If everyone in the nation joins in the Porkbusters movement, we will be able to afford Katrina relief without raising taxes or cutting more vital programs and services. Ultimately, we’ll all have a better and fairer system of federal project spending for our own local communities.

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