By ALBERT MCKEON Telegraph Staff Writer
New Hampshire’s four federal legislators didn’t build a bridge to nowhere.
Instead, they say they connected tax dollars to projects that benefit the state’s economy, environment, health and education systems, and law enforcement agencies.
The work includes restoration of two Boys & Girls Clubs, including one in Milford; funding for Buckingham Place, a Nashua shelter for homeless veterans; and development of insulated military gear by Malden Mills in Hudson.
Sens. Judd Gregg and John Sununu and Reps. Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter obtained funding for these and 103 other projects last year through a federal appropriations process known as earmarking.
Unlike the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” – the $223 million span that would have connected a small Alaskan town to an undeveloped island – none of the earmarks secured by this state’s delegation invite the sort of scorn that squashed that infamous project.
Using congressional spending bills for fiscal year 2008, they directed – or earmarked – more than $126 million from various federal programs to organizations, colleges, police departments, hospitals and defense contractors throughout New Hampshire.
Among the funds they earmarked:
$205,800 to support Marguerite’s Place, a transitional housing and service provider in Nashua for homeless women who are victims of abuse.
$492,000 for restoration of the Littleton Opera House.
$3.2 million to Solid State Scientific in Nashua for military infrared sensors.
Including those co-sponsored by one to three of the other three legislators, Gregg attached his name to 66 earmarks totaling more than $93.9 million and Sununu supported 39 such requests that totaled more than $75.6 million, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Defense appropriations constituted the bulk of their earmarked dollars: $62.6 million for Gregg and $57.6 million for Sununu.
Hodes backed 37 earmarks totaling $37.7 million and Shea-Porter endorsed 31 earmarks representing $44.2 million.
As with their Senate counterparts, defense appropriations made up the lion’s share of the freshman representatives’ earmarks: $20.3 million for Shea-Porter and $20.2 million for Hodes.
The four legislators often reached across the aisle when earmarking. Gregg and Sununu, both Republicans, and Hodes and Shea-Porter, both Democrats, co-sponsored many appropriations requests.
They also co-sponsored earmarks with legislators from other states on defense and environmental projects. Occasionally, an earmark had only the loosest of connections to this state: For instance, a $1.9 million earmark to purchase 82 acres in Massachusetts to protect fish and wildlife along the Connecticut River watershed – an area that runs from New Hampshire to Connecticut.
Power of the purse
Members of Congress decide each year how tax dollars should be spent.
They allocate funds to the various Executive Branch agencies – accepting and rejecting parts of the president’s requested budget – but also divvying some of that money for their own states.
As the spending bills are prepared, senators and representatives submit, to the appropriations committees in the Senate and House, their requests to fund the projects back home. These requests have assumed an unforgettable moniker: “earmarks.”
Critics have various complaints about earmarks, one of them being that legislators often accept donations from the people whose companies and organizations benefited from them, creating a “pay to play” game affecting the use of public money.
Another complaint is that earmarking is nothing more than “pork barrel” spending aimed at pleasing constituents back home.
Earmarks take funding out of the hands of the federal departments that have expertise in their respective fields, critics charge. This “interference” directs funds to programs and companies that should receive little or no money, and also opens the appropriations process to corruption, they say.
“It’s got very little to do with project merit but everything to do with politics and power,” said Taxpayers for Common Sense Vice President Steve Ellis. “And that’s part of the problem: They’re not spending the money wisely.”
Examined individually, many earmarks seem worthy of funding, Ellis said. For instance, few in New Hampshire would argue with helping to pay for the restoration of a Boys and Girls Club damaged by floodwater, Ellis said. Gregg earmarked $137,200 for the club in Milford.
But an earmark for the Souhegan Valley Boys and Girls Club should be weighed against funding requested by all other Boys and Girls Clubs across the country, Ellis said.
Staffers at the Housing and Urban Development department, which oversees the Economic Development Initiatives fund that will support the $137,200 earmark, have a better grasp on priorities than the various lawmakers jockeying for money to please voters, he said.
Also, earmarking doesn’t allow for the deeper consideration on whether the projects should even be supported with tax dollars, Ellis said.
More than a dozen hospitals or health-care services received money for renovations or improvements to patient records systems. Among those tapping the pool: St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua ($574,000) and Elliot Health System in Manchester ($195,000).
But Gregg, Sununu, Hodes and Shea-Porter all defend the projects they funded and their latitude to use the appropriations process for these endeavors.
“If done right, with a valid public purpose, the projects can be and should be very beneficial,” Hodes said.
Gregg added: “My view on earmarks is, even though it’s become a pejorative term, they accomplish many things that wouldn’t be accomplished by the White House. Otherwise, you’d have a third-tier or fourth-tier bureaucrat making these decisions.”
The legislators also contend that because New Hampshire pays more in federal taxes than it receives in federal spending, the state’s congressional delegation should try to get the most of what’s being spent by Washington.
The state got back 71 cents per dollar paid in federal taxes in 2005, the last year data was readily available and according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation. Only four states received less.
“I do think it is our constitutional right to request and appropriate,” Shea-Porter said. “But the other thing is we’re a small state, and if we didn’t do that, we might lose out to New York or some other state.”
Indeed, New Hampshire’s delegation has ensured that the state holds its own against larger states. New Hampshire ranks 24th in the nation on earmark spending per capita: about $49 per resident.
They’re back at it this year. Gregg, Sununu, Hodes and Shea-Porter are now watching their 2009 earmark requests move through the Congressional pipeline. Proposed projects include: the funding of Nashua Police Athletic League’s Youth Safe Haven program, the restoration of Osgood Pond in Milford, and more money for Plymouth State University’s weather program.
Defending the process
Gregg sponsored the most earmarks among the state’s delegation with 66 appropriation requests. The three-term senator serves on the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, the group that decides which earmark requests move on to a floor vote and which ones hit the cutting room floor.
Gregg doesn’t believe 66 earmarks are excessive, and points to the work he has helped finance with federal money over the years that, he said, would have otherwise gone elsewhere.
More than 300,000 acres have been preserved, more than $300 million directed to the University of New Hampshire’s science department has made it a “pre-eminent” program, and state and local police agencies have received the money needed to fight illegal drugs, he said.
Sununu also listed many initiatives in those fields that he said have succeeded largely through his efforts to earmark funds for them.
Indeed, the four legislators not only stand by their earmarks, but also routinely publicize the money they’re bringing back to the Granite State.
As their appropriation requests travel through congressional committees, a full floor vote and maybe more review, the legislators’ offices issue press releases touting how that money will soon help their constituents. More press releases follow when the appropriations are approved.
Hodes offers the interactive map “Keeping Your Tax Dollars in New Hampshire” on the home page of his Web site. The map displays a county-by-county, town-by-town breakdown of where appropriated tax dollars went.
As with most other legislators, the term “earmark” is never used.
Copyright, 2008, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H. All Rights Reserved.