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Despite GOP calls for fiscal restraint, lawmakers expected to continue to secure earmarks

The average wish list from a Republican was $20 million higher than the average request from a Democrat.

In this fiscal year, Rep. Ilhan Omar secured $3 million for Richfield to construct a Wood Lake Nature Center.
In this fiscal year, Rep. Ilhan Omar secured $3 million for Richfield to construct a Wood Lake Nature Center.
City of Richfield

WASHINGTON – Community projects, also known as earmarks, have become increasingly popular and will provide Minnesota’s communities and nonprofits with hundreds of millions of dollars this year.

That source of funding for local needs is expected to continue, even as House Republicans seek cuts to federal spending.

But the GOP takeover of the U.S. House may mean there will be restrictions on the type of projects that can be funded.  And House Democrats are concerned the number of projects they are able to submit for approval will be cut back.

The House Appropriations Committee did not return requests for comment.

When Democrats controlled the House in the last Congress, Democratic members were allowed to submit up to 15 requests and Republicans only 10. That ratio is likely to be reversed.

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However, with the Senate remaining in Democratic hands, Minnesota’s Democratic senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, are expected to be able to continue to secure the lion’s share of funding for special projects in the state in the next fiscal year.

In this fiscal year, members of the state’s congressional delegation have obtained funding for more than 150 local projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Those local projects ranged from modest grants for low-income housing and for a Boys and Girls Club to $2.2 million for St. Paul to make energy efficiency upgrades at Como Zoo, $3 million for Richfield to construct a Wood Lake Nature Center and $20 million for light rail between Target Field in downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park. There is also funding for water and sewage facilities and small road and bridge projects across the state.

Most of that money for those projects was approved in a massive, $1.7 trillion omnibus bill that will fund the federal government in this fiscal year. The bill contained funding for more than 7,200 projects across the nation, a huge increase over the 4,962 local projects funded in the federal government’s 2022 budget bill.

No Republican lawmaker from Minnesota voted for that omnibus bill, yet Reps. Tom Emmer, R-6th District, and Pete Stauber, R-8th District, won approval for millions of dollars to fund projects in that bill.

Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-7th District, is the only member of Congress from Minnesota that does not submit earmark requests. Rep. Brad Finstad, R-1st District, was elected months after the April 2022 deadline for submissions.

Earmarks, banned in 2011, were resurrected in 2021 in a limited way. To provide greater transparency, members are required to certify that neither they nor their immediate families have any financial interest in projects they requested and to make their requests public. The total budget for earmarks was also limited to no more than 1% of the federal budget.

Earmarks have staying power

Like most Minnesota lawmakers, Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd District, won approval of all projects, including and $84,000 request for the Scott County Sherriff’s Department acquisition of disaster relief and rescue equipment.

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Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said the idea for the funding request occurred during a conversation with Craig in which Hennen said equipment for water rescues would be appreciated, as would temporary housing for victims of a disaster.

So the request was made and eventually approved. Now Hennen is waiting for the Justice Department to tell him what he can buy with the money.

“The feds have ideas on what we can buy or not,” he said.

Craig also requested funding for 14 other projects, including $3.1 million to realign Smith Avenue and Dodd Road in West St. Paul, and $750,000 for the Shakopee Riverfront Cultural Corridor.

Every one of Democratic Rep. Dean Phillip’s requests in the 3rd Congressional District was funded last year. They totaled nearly $25 million and included $4 million to improve the drinking water in the city of Corcoran and $2.4 million for Bloomington to construct 1.6 miles of a multi-use trail and a bike/pedestrian bridge over Nine Mile Creek.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, submitted more than $35 million in requests, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th District, submitted $25 million worth of special projects.

While most of the requests made by Minnesota’s congressional delegation were funded, a few of them were not, including a $7 million request for improvement of Heatherwood Road in St. Cloud. Emmer’s office did not respond to request for information, neither did the city of St. Cloud, so it’s unclear why this project was denied funding.

Emmer did, however, secure funding for seven other local infrastructure projects valued at more than $33 million.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, has fought against earmarks for years, considering them wasteful “pork” that can lead to corruption.

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Despite the fiscal austerity preached by House Republicans lately, he doubts they will be able to eliminate the practice of congressionally directed funding of local projects.

“I think Republicans have already made the mistake of allowing them to continue,” Schatz said.

An attempt to completely ban earmarks by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, was voted down 52-158 by House Republicans when they were establishing the new House rules shortly after last year’s elections.

However, Schatz conceded that earmarks, at least in the House, “could be limited further.”

Minnesota’s Democratic lawmakers say they are best positioned to know the needs of their district. “We must make investments in our cities and towns based on the guidance of local people, not bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” said Phillips in a release.

However Schatz said federal COVID-19 funding, a massive new infrastructure law and other available federal money should cover all state and local funding needs.

Republicans ask for more money than Democrats

Brookings Institution issued a recent study of the earmarks sought in Congress in 2021, the first year they were reinstated after the 10-year ban. It found that only about half of the GOP members of Congress requested earmarks that year – a number that has increased since then. It also found that Republicans sought more expensive earmarks than Democrats and that the average wish list from a Republican was $20 million higher than the average request from a Democrat.

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There was a reason for this. Republicans tended to favor requests for infrastructure funding, the Brookings report said, which by nature were more expensive than the less expensive requests for housing, education, health care and social service grants that were more popular among Democrats.

“If in the 118th Congress the behavior stays the same, we would expect Republicans to request much more money from each earmark for their infrastructure projects than their Democratic colleagues,” the Brookings study says.

E.J. Faber, an author of the study and a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said the popularity of earmarks is based on the fact that they give members of Congress “direct power.”

“When you had the earmark moratorium, the president directed a lot of spending instead of individual members of Congress directing money to their districts,” Faber said.

He also said the reforms Democrats in the House and Senate adopted to reinstate earmarks “went a long way to address the problems that initially caused earmarks to go away.”

While the rules for this year’s earmarks have not been finalized in either the Senate or the House, a mid-April deadline is expected for lawmakers to submit their requests.