Jun 09 2008

Shelby plays earmark game, and Tuscaloosa benefits

Tuscaloosa News

By Adam Jones

One person's congressional pork may be another's necessity.

Each year, watchdog groups in Washington, D.C., outline what they contend is government waste inserted into spending bills by lawmakers bent on benefitting their home state or district. Those groups often make lists of the most egregious earmarks, criticized with the label 'pork projects.'

A quick scan of spending appropriations for Tuscaloosa reveal $4.1 million earmarked for downtown revitalization, an effort that will ultimately include $10 million in federal money for a parking facility.

'It's more than just a parking deck. It's an intermodal facility,' said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. 'It is a justified use of federal dollars, and, let's remember, the people of Tuscaloosa have paid their taxes to the federal government, and there should be a proper return on that as well.'

The money for the city is part of 12 earmarks in federal spending bills designated for Tuscaloosa in this year's budget, requested by Alabama's congressional delegation. Of those, 11 were approved, for a total of $20.2 million designated specifically for governments within the county.

The majority of those funds went mostly to the University of Alabama, which received $11 million in earmarks steered to its campus by Washington lawmakers, according to a database of federal earmarks compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-profit government watchdog group.

All 12 earmarks were requested by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, though Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, submitted requests along with Shelby on two of them, both for UA's family law clinic.

In a previous interview in Washington, D.C., Shelby said he tries to make a difference when requesting earmarks, and doesn't want to be involved in what he called 'shady earmarks.'

'I'm interested in projects that are very essential for our state and nation,' he said.

Urban renewal is one way federal money can be used to benefit local governments, and the state's universities need more money as well, he said.

'I'm proud of my commitment to universities,' he said. 'Millions and million, if not billions, have gone to other universities like Harvard, MIT and Stanford because people have had the right representatives up here. I want to be sure Alabama, our state, a small state, is well represented.'

William Stewart, a retired UA political science professor, said he feels earmarks should be ended so the money could then be spent balancing the budget in other areas. But Washington's game is earmarks, and Shelby has long been a master of it.

'He'll be remembered because he's been so successful in bringing home the bacon. Since we are a poor state, he's gotten help, and we need help,' Stewart said.

In fact, with the help of Shelby, a member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and ranking member of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Congress earmarked $320 million for Alabama in this year's budget. The state places 13th among all states in total earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Maddox said local governments in Alabama will likely continue to financially lean on Congress because state money for transportation, much of it based on gasoline taxes, won't keep up with needs.

Maddox makes no apologies for the flow of federal money to Tuscaloosa for downtown renewal. The first phase of the project, costing $37 million, included the purchase and clearing of four city blocks, designing and building a small city park, and drainage improvements on 21st Avenue. Other phases include construction of a $12.5 million parking deck and intermodal facility and a $63 million federal building.

'Senator Shelby was the one who realized the state of downtown Tuscaloosa and it needed to have an improved infastructure and a more vibrant downtown,' said Maddox, who spent two days last week in Washington with other city officials visiting the Capitol Hill offices of Shelby and Davis. 'He saw the need, and realized Congress was the appropriate vehicle to make this happen.

'The federal government absolutely has a role and ensuring urban areas are vibrant because they provide an economic benefit and all levels of government benefit.'

Without the federal money, the project couldn't be done, and that includes replacing underground infrastructure installed before World War I, he said.

The intermodal facility will provide parking for downtown, including government buildings and the proposed federal courthouse, and will be the hub for the Tuscaloosa Transit Authority, which gets money from the federal government.

'This is a real opportunity, probably a once-in-a-century opportunity,' Maddox said.

Tuscaloosa earmarks

2008 Congressional appropriations:

For UA

$8.93 million for construction

$478,000 for an engineering curriculum for high schools

$470,000 for Near-Space Engineering Research and Technology program

$423,000 for family law (two separate earmarks)

$376,000 for to help with fisheries research in the region

$250,000 for the Alabama Entrepreneurial Research Network

$95,000 for the tele-health initiative


$4.92 million to the Army Corps of Engineers to build a new facility

$4.12 million to Tuscaloosa for downtown phase I and University Boulevard Phase III

$196,000 to Tuscaloosa to develop and airport masterplan