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Congressional Earmarks: Good Or Bad For Central Ohio?

Congressional earmarks have come to symbolize a bloated federal government and out-of-control spending. Earlier this week the Senate rejected a GOP bid to ban the practice. Despite their bad rap, Central Ohio earmarks are welcomed by local officials.

Remember the bridge to nowhere? It's was a proposed bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island that would have cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. It became the symbol of wasteful government spending and outrage over the congressional budget tool known as earmarks. Earmarks are sometimes described as "pork" or "lard." Members of Congress quietly attach them to marginally related spending bills. They're a means lawmakers use to bring home the bacon to their constituents. It happens everywhere including Central Ohio

"We received a $500,000 grant from the federal government to assist us with a sewer project here in Worthington," says Anne Brown.

Anne Brown speaks for Worthington city government. She says the city needs to replace a portion of its aging 90-year-old sewer system at a cost of $1.5 million. The city contacted the office of 15th District Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy for help. Kilroy got the $500,000 appropriation attached to legislation known as the 2010 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill. But is it a sewer to nowhere? Worthington's Anne Brown says

"Oh no, it will connect into the Columbus sewer line and it definitely has a beginning and an end and will be going on into where it needs to be directed," Brown says.

There's currently a huge debate as to whether earmarks should continue.

"Earmarks are controversial because in recent years they've been subject to abuse," says Jack Pitney.

Pitney, a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College in California, cites two reasons earmarks are considered controversial. Pitney says that some lawmakers use them as leverage to get campaign contributions. In other instances they're allocated for projects that don't have much public value.

"So the combination of the potential for corruption and the wasteful spending made them controversial," Pitney says.

On the other hand, says Pitney, one could argue that earmarking is simply Congress exercising its constitutional authority to spend money; often for worthy public projects.

"If you look at many of the projects that are the subject of earmarks they are totally defensible as federal public works. Most of them are not bridges to nowhere; they're bridges to somewhere that demand a certain degree of federal spending," Pitney says.

In the past year, Congresswoman Kilroy sponsored or co-sponsored 20 earmarks totaling more than $18 million. That includes more than $4 million for Ohio State University; almost a half-million for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. A coalition of Columbus area day care centers was awarded $650,000 to help build another center; and a $1 million earmark will pay for improvements to a Grove City Interchange on I-71.

Kilroy's earmarking has not gone unnoticed by the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. The group's vice president, Steve Ellis, says it wants to eliminate what it considers wasteful federal spending.

"The funding decisions are being made on the basis of political muscle rather than project merit," Ellis says. "Also, people are making thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and reaping millions of dollars in earmarked tax dollars back. And then lastly it's a bad way to allocate our funding. We want to do it out in the open with merit based or competitive formulas that will actually help us meet the nation's priorities not some political priorities."

While the debate rages in Washington, Professor Pitney says elimination of Congressional earmarks will only make a small dent in federal spending.

"Even if you eliminate earmarks that doesn't necessarily save a nickel in the federal budget. What earmarks do is direct where the spending goes and without earmarks Congress is essentially delegating those decisions to the executive branch. There may be good reasons for eliminating earmarks but substantial savings in the federal budget won't come as a result of elimination," says Pitney. Spokeswoman Anne Brown says Worthington is grateful for the earmarked money.

"I think it's been a really good opportunity to receive some dollars that we would not otherwise been able to," Brown says.

But that money sits idle until the city can come up with the remainder of the funds needed for the sewer system renovation.