Jul 28 2006

Not All Earmarks are Created Equal

The Birminhgam News


Carping over congressional earmarks has grown in recent years, but not nearly as fast as the number of earmarks has.

Between 1996 and 2004, earmarks ballooned from 3,055 to 14,211, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That's not all bad, because not all earmarks are created equal.

It is true that earmarks, which members of Congress target for their own districts or states, are an easy target. Take, for example, last year's ballyhoo over the "Bridge to Nowhere," a $223 million appropriation sought by Alaska lawmakers for a single bridge between the town of Ketchikan and Gravina Island.

The earmarks are not based on meeting national needs, and members of Congress use them to trumpet all the good they are doing back home (read: "re-elect me). But at least - unlike Alabama's legislative "pork" - the congressional earmarks generally are described in a spending bill and the entire Congress votes on them.

It's easier to defend congressional earmarks when the projects are worthy, such as one of the projects U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby has targeted for earmarks. Alabama's senior senator earmarked another $10 million - bringing the total to $30 million - for the second phase of UAB's Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research complex. The first phase is the Richard C. and Annette N. Shelby Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Building, which cost $140.8 million, including $60 million in federal funds.

Shelby's phase-two earmark was included in a federal spending bill that cleared a Senate committee last week, bringing it one step closer to reality. The $20 million approved the week before is part of another spending bill. Both bills are still a few steps from becoming law, and figures could change during negotiations in coming weeks between the House and Senate.

But bet on Shelby, because of his power as a senior member of the Senate appropriations committee, getting what he wants. That would be great news for UAB, Birmingham and Alabama.

UAB already has $10 million from last year, courtesy of Shelby, for what will be a $120 million, 300,000-square-foot addition to the complex. Another $30 million by way of Shelby in 2007 would help speed the project to fruition.

In a perfect world, the state of Alabama would adequately fund the state's flagship research institution - and one of the nation's premier research institutions. But it doesn't come anywhere close. Shelby's willingness to put his appropriations power to good use for UAB and this state earns a hearty round of applause.