Maryland earmarks could be at risk

A moratorium on federal earmarks is expected to force Maryland colleges and universities, the state and local governments, private companies, charities and nonprofit organizations and other potential recipients to look elsewhere for future funding.

In recent years, hundreds of millions of earmarked dollars have flowed to Maryland, but that source of federal largesse might be about to run dry. Republican lawmakers and President Barack Obama, eager to establish fiscal-conservative credibility with voters, have called for an end to the time-honored practice by members of Congress of directing federal money to pet projects, typically in their home district or state.

The anti-earmark drive has thrown into doubt spending requests made earlier this year by Maryland senators and congressmen of both parties. Those requests are stuck in the congressional pipeline while House and Senate leaders consider various proposals for keeping the federal government operating in coming months.

Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, an ardent defender of the practice, said "the future of earmarks is not clear on Capitol Hill right now." Those, like himself, who believe the Constitution empowers lawmakers to send their districts the money they think it needs, appear to have been "checkmated" by opponents, he added.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, an aggressive earmarker, recently bowed to the results of this month's election and the desires of conservative members of his own party and announced support for a two-year ban on earmarks, starting in January.

McConnell said "there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight."

Obama, in response, said efforts to control the federal deficit can't stop with "wasteful earmark spending." He said in a statement that he was looking forward "to working with Democrats and Republicans to not only end earmark spending, but to find other ways to bring down our deficits for our children."

An earmark is a targeted spending project set aside for a particular recipient or purpose. Overall, earmarks accounted for less than 1 percent of federal spending, or about $16 billion last year.

They have attracted outsized attention because earmarks bypass the routine budget process and have, in the eyes of critics, been abused by some politicians. Efforts in recent years to overhaul the process have made the spending more transparent; members of Congress must now disclose their earmark requests before submitting them.

Each year, Maryland senators and congressmen from both parties file requests totaling hundreds of millions, which then get whittled down by congressional spending committees. This year, because Congress failed to pass routine appropriations measures, the process has stalled, and it's impossible to know which requests — if any — might gain final approval by Congress and be signed into law by Obama.

However, the list of Maryland institutions whose requests survived the initial screening is long, and features many recipients of past earmarks.

Among the targeted spending now hanging in the balance: millions in federal aid for infrastructure projects at military facilities in the state, including those about to receive a large influx of new workers; environmental cleanup, such as oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay; and public safety improvements, from a communications network in Cecil County to various projects by the Baltimore Police Department and the Howard County Family Justice Center.

Other would-be recipients include a job assistance program run by the Baltimore mayor's office; mortgage fraud enforcement by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in Baltimore; cybersecurity programs at institutions of higher learning, including Stevenson University in Owings Mills and the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Cyber Security Research and Technology Development; and a variety of programs for public schools.

In addition, a number of nonprofit and social service organizations are awaiting the fate of requests, submitted by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski on their behalf, including: the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which has a $1 million earmark pending; the Kennedy Krieger Institute, $500,000; the Community Conferencing Center of Baltimore, $200,000; Girl Scouts of the USA, $1 million; and the Maryland Association of Youth Services Bureaus, $1 million.

Mikulski and fellow Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin also made requests for Casa de Maryland Inc., $750,000, and Baltimore-Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound, $1 million.

Mikulski, recently re-elected to another six-year term, has been the state's most prodigious earmarker. For 2011, she has a total of more than $50 million that cleared the initial screening, which typically eliminates the vast majority of requests.

Because of her perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski is well-positioned to gain approval for her requests and help others in the state's congressional delegation with theirs. The Senate will remain under Democratic control in the new Congress, and unlike Republicans in both chambers, Senate Democrats have not gone along with the earmark moratorium.

However, according to Ruppersberger, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, the earmark moratorium in the Republican-controlled House makes it unlikely that any "congressionally designated projects," as he and others prefer to call earmarks, will survive the spending process, which requires approval by both houses of Congress.

"None will go through," he predicted.

The congressman, whose district includes Fort Meade, Aberdeen Proving Ground, the National Security Agency, the Port of Baltimore and BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, said "if we don't get money for roads, streets, highways, we're going to be negatively affected" because of increased traffic as part of the base realignment process currently under way.

Ruppersberger said he recently raised the issue with Army Secretary John McHugh, a former Republican congressman, adding that he hopes funds can be found elsewhere in the defense budget.

Some on Capitol Hill predict that a phase-out of earmarks will prompt a return to hidden spending, with money for pet projects buried in legislation on behalf of their powerful sponsors.

Opponents of earmarks say that all spending proposals should go through the normal budget process, so those deemed worthy can receive funding. In addition, groups that relied in the past on federal earmarks have been advised to find alternate routes of assistance, such as applying for grants under existing government assistance programs that provide funding on the basis of merit, as opposed to political clout.

Among the most prominent examples of earmarked spending at risk in the new Washington atmosphere are water projects by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Port of Baltimore is heavily dependent on Corps dredging to keep shipping lanes open, a need expected to grow after the Panama Canal starts accepting larger ships in the next few years.

An earmark ban might not have an immediate impact on the Baltimore harbor work, since Obama's most recent budget requested dredging money for the Corps projects independent of congressional earmarks. But there is no guarantee that federal funding for dredging might not be curtailed in future budgets, as Congress and the president look for additional ways to trim the deficit.

At more immediate risk, potentially, are projects such as sand replenishment for Ocean City beaches, previously supported through earmarks. It's unclear whether the Obama administration would request federal spending on such projects, Ruppersberger said.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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