Bring on the Pork

Tucson institutions and projects will benefit from new federal appropriations

Critics say it's federal pork barrel spending, but supporters say it's just elected officials bringing home the political bacon. Whichever it is, congressional earmarked appropriations for specific pet projects are increasing at an alarming rate.

"The growth in this spending has quadrupled in the last 10 years," says Keith Ashdown of the Washington, D.C., lobbying group, Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Congress has the right to direct money where it wants, but these record increases are unsustainable."

Lambasting the recently approved federal omnibus spending bill--which contains thousands of earmarked projects--in a press release, Ashdown stated: "(It) is the fattest legislative hog that we have ever seen, and despite record deficits, lawmakers are much more concerned with feathering the nests of their favorite parochial interests."

Ashdown later spoke to the Weekly via telephone. "Lawmakers are increasing the federal deficit and raising taxes on our kids," Ashdown said in reference to the budgetary earmarking practice. "If we don't limit this spending today, we face leaving our children an unrestrained deficit."

Among the projects being funded under the just-approved spending bill are a number of local initiatives. While some of them went through the normal channels of being reviewed and recommended by federal agencies, others were simply stuck into the budget by Tucson's representatives in Washington.

Campbell Avenue north of Grant Road is slated to have $500,000 worth of landscaping and sidewalk improvements made to it, thanks to the national budget. Jim Glock, director of the city's Department of Transportation, believes this is a reasonable expenditure of federal money.

"People should recognize they pay 18.4 cents a gallon in federal gas tax at the pump," Glock says, "but only 90.5 percent of that is returned to Arizona. So this project is a portion over and above what typically comes back to our state and local governments."

Mary Steele, hospice director at the Tucson Medical Center, offers another explanation as to why she thinks federal taxpayers should be helping fund local projects. TMC will receive $1 million toward the construction of a new $4.5 million, 16-room hospice center, for which most of the money has been raised. Construction is scheduled for 2005.

"Our population is aging," Steele says, "and hospice service is utilized across the country. I believe the (federal) funding is very justified."

Spearheading the effort to rehabilitate downtown's historic Fox Theatre, Herb Stratford justifies the $430,000 his project will be obtaining from the government by saying, "I see this as a greater good which will benefit the whole community." Indicating that the federal money will be part of a $1.5 million construction infrastructure improvement, Stratford adds that he is seeking an extra $6 million in loans from financial institutions to permit the entire theater renovation to be completed.

Among other local projects receiving money under the spending bill is Mission San Xavier de Bac, which will receive $250,000 to be used as part of the mission's ongoing comprehensive preservation effort, specifically to work on the church's west bell tower.

Federal funds will additionally be going to help pay for the Rio Nuevo science center bridge across Interstate 10 and to assist in the restoration of the former Dunbar School, which was once a segregated facility. Meanwhile, $1 million will be used to help establish an Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Project at the UA, while $400,000 will be provided to the El Pueblo Health Center.

Even though both of Tucson's congressmen, Democrat Raúl Grijalva and Republican Jim Kolbe, actively participate in the earmarking process, as a whole, Arizona falls far down on the list of those grabbing for federal pork, ranking 40th in the country.

David Williams, vice president for policy of the Washington-based organization Citizens Against Government Waste, believes the federal appropriation process is in total chaos and needs to be fixed. Pointing out that lawmakers had less than 24 hours to review the 1,700 page omnibus spending bill, he also has harsh words for the nation's elected officials.

"Whether we have a surplus or deficit doesn't matter to these guys," Williams says of Congress. "There are approximately 12,000 pork barrel projects and it's becoming business as usual.

"Those projects account for $24 billion out of the $388 billion spending bill," Williams adds. "That might be considered nothing, but think of the other things Congress is not doing. They're not taking care of Social Security, and $24 billion is still (the expense) of five months of fighting the war in Iraq. What's more important?"

To fix the situation, Williams would rather see a competitive grant process for the earmarked funds. He thinks applications should be submitted to federal agencies, and that they in turn could recommend which ones to include in the budget.

Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense has another idea: He wants to see congressional restrictions placed on both the number and cost of earmarked projects. But he also questions the shift in budgetary decision-making on these projects away from government experts to politicians.

"We should limit them to some acceptable number," Ashdown says of the earmarked expenditures. "We need to start a debate on these projects instead of giving a kitchen sink to everybody."

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