Wednesday, December 03, 2003

A Whole Lot of Manure...

From Mule Barns to Museums, Spending Bill Aims Taxpayer Money at Local Projects

By Alan Fram, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - A $373 billion measure that finances the bulk of the government's domestic agencies also has money to boost Medicare payments to 21 Pennsylvania hospitals, help an oil museum in Texas and build a model of a mule barn in Illinois.

And the mule barn was sponsored by a Republican - whose party symbol is the elephant, not the donkey.

Following a long tradition, billions of dollars for thousands of such local projects, called earmarks, are sprinkled throughout the wide-ranging spending package. The measure combines seven unfinished spending bills for the budget year that started Oct. 1.

When lawmakers return Monday for what is expected to be a brief end-of-year session, the House will probably approve the legislation, which took up 423 pages of fine print in The Congressional Record. But disputes over gun control, overtime pay rules and other issues give it an uphill climb in the Senate, which might have to revisit it when legislators return in January.

Neither party has provided definitive figures on the number of earmarks. But one table alone lists 902 economic development projects worth $278 million, up slightly from the 882 items that cost $261 million in the same section a year ago.

This year's list includes $200,000 for improvements to the privately financed Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, won by Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas.

The bill also has $150,000 for restoring buildings in the Port of LaSalle project in LaSalle, Ill., including a lock tender's house, an interpretive center and a replica mule barn. It was sponsored by Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill.

Elsewhere in the bill, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., used more than $7 million from a program for helping hospitals become more efficient providers of Medicare to assist 21 hospitals in his state. When Congress was approving the Medicare overhaul bill last month, Specter opposed letting Pennsylvania hospitals join an experiment on changing how some reimbursements are paid.

In other examples:

-Republican aides say there are $3.7 billion in earmarks for roads, mass transit, rail and airports - up from $3.3 billion last year.

-The portion of the bill covering labor, health and education programs has 2,027 projects worth $862 million, slightly more projects than a year ago but costing a bit less. These include $16,000 for new displays for the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y., and $500,000 for Gilda's Club in Hackensack, N.J., a center for cancer patients and their families.

-The bill contains more than $190 million in projects for the Tampa Bay area of Florida, says House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., a chief author of the bill from St. Petersburg. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., faced with re-election next year, is taking credit for $236 million of transportation projects for her state.

-Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, of the Senate Appropriations Committee is citing more than $150 million in projects for his state from the part of the bill covering the State, Commerce and Justice Departments. This includes $10 million to help market the state's seafood, and $150,000 to try to stabilize the Beluga whale population in Cook Inlet.

The bill also has provisions protecting fishing interests in the Northeast, Northwest and Alaska, paving the way for the government to purchase land along the Tennessee-Kentucky border for local communities and establishing grants for research into coaxing energy from agricultural products.

Critics say earmarks distort the objective role the government should play in dispensing taxpayer funds.

"It's a way for politics to decide where the money goes," says Brian Riedl, who monitors the federal budget for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Defenders say earmarks account for a tiny portion of the overall $786 billion that this year's regular spending bills are expected to cost.

"We think it's perfectly appropriate for members of Congress to make decisions on what additional federal investments to make," said John Scofield, GOP spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill also has:

-$40 million to build a military cargo terminal for the port of Philadelphia. Congressional aides say the money was added for Specter after he agreed to drop his demand that the bill block proposed Bush administration rules that could make it easier for employers to halt overtime pay for some white-collar workers. Specter aides say the two issues are unrelated.

-$50 million to construct an indoor rain forest and aquarium in Coralville, Iowa, heated by renewable energy sources - won by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. As a tradeoff, House members got $50 million to award to members for projects - money that was divided $30 million for Republicans, $20 million for Democrats.

-No. 3 House GOP leader Roy Blunt of Missouri got $12.4 million for work on producing fuels from animal waste conducted by the Society for Energy and Environmental Research, a nonprofit corporation whose chairman is former CIA director R. James Woolsey. Blunt's district has a major dairy and poultry industry.

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