Earmarks not always wasteful

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 
photoCourtney Sherwood

They’re “pork” when they go somewhere else, vital when the money’s coming here, suspect to advocates of open government, and forbidden — at least temporarily — from Capitol Hill. Earmarks.

With D.C. politicians deep into budget-cutting talks, I thought this would be a good moment to look at earmarks in Clark County.

In 2010, Congress approved $37.8 billion in these hand-picked giveaways to schools, states, local governments and businesses. More than one-sixth of that was delegated in secret; we don’t know which politician asked for which earmark.

At least $17.8 million will come directly to Clark County, while another $4.3 million is going to projects that could affect us here.

According to data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit budget watchdog group, the biggest recent earmarks for our community are:

• $3.6 million to C-Tran to buy new vehicles and analyze transit options.

• $3.2 million to Vancouver-based nLight to research and develop advanced lasers for the Air Force.

• $2.9 million toward the Port of Vancouver’s $150 million rail expansion, which port officials say will eventually spur creation of 1,000 to 2,000 jobs.

• $2.4 million to develop helicopter components for the Army at Vancouver-based Onboard Systems International.

• $1.9 million towards the Columbia River Crossing.

• $1.9 million for improved access to Vancouver’s waterfront, which would clear the way for massive redevelopment there.

Folks who don’t like the size of our defense budget will wrinkle their noses at some of these earmarks, public transit skeptics will raise their eyebrows at others, but none of these allocations are shocking.

Compare them to $2 million for children’s wooden arrow makers that Oregon’s senators earmarked in 2008 or the unspent $223 million for a “bridge to nowhere” that would have connected Alaska’s mainland to an island with only 50 residents. Egregious stories have made earmarks an easy target, but I’m not sure that completely eliminating these appropriations are the answer.

Neither, history suggests, are our two senators, both Democrats. All but one Clark County-specific earmark from 2010 was sponsored by Maria Cantwell, Patty Murray, or both of them. Earmarks cost $31.28 per American, and the state’s congressional delegation brought back $42.03 per Washingtonian in 2010.

Though she’s fiscally conservative, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, is also hesitant to banish earmarks, despite proposals from some Republicans to do just that.

“She’s never been comfortable supporting a complete ban on members of Congress being involved in how funds are directed,” said Herrera Beutler spokesman Casey Bowman.

Herrera Beutler would like to see more competitive bid allocations, rather than direct handouts to favored businesses, Bowman said. “Whatever happens, we’ll work to make sure that Clark County gets its share.”

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.