The first step to obtaining an earmark? Asking for it

By ALBERT McKEON Telegraph Staff Writer

The Autonomous Undersea Systems Institute sounds like something out of a comic book. But this Lee-based program wouldn’t have netted $1.2 million in federal funding if it were as fictional as Aquaman.

The institute, known as AUSI, convinced Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and Sens. John Sununu and Judd Gregg that it needed money to advance the production of autonomous underwater vehicles. The vehicles are intended to disable explosive devices placed in the sea by terrorists and other nefarious people who can swim.

So, how did a 32-year-old program that started in a University of New Hampshire laboratory and has bounced around since then persuade the three legislators to hand over $1.2 million?

It just asked.

AUSI Director Dick Bildberg said he and his staff at the nonprofit research institute simply told the legislators about the advantages of supporting their work.

“Obviously, they want to know what would help the area,” Bildberg said. “We just gave them our ideas. We showed them the stuff going on in the state and how it could be leveraged in the state.”

Getting federal funds through an earmark, as opposed to receiving it from a grant or an agency contract, doesn’t necessarily mean the money will come any faster.

AUSI still hasn’t received its $900,000, Bildberg said.

“The check is in the mail,” he said.

AUSI partners with Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and a Navy lab in Newport, R.I., in developing the autonomous underwater vehicle, Bildberg said. The technology is “real,” but still “young,” he said. The three-way collaborative wants to advance it to the point where not only the Navy uses the vehicles for disarming explosives, but other organizations can use them for scientific endeavors, he said.

The $1.2 million that Shea-Porter, Gregg and Sununu earmarked will help build the infrastructure that supports AUSI’s mission, Bildberg said. (AUSI will actually receive about $900,000 and the other two programs will split the remainder.)

How AUSI got its earmark mirrors the way in which many other New Hampshire organizations and companies secured the help of the state’s legislative delegation, which includes Rep. Paul Hodes.

The organizations submitted requests for federal funding to one or more members of the state’s congressional delegation, they and the legislators said. The legislators’ staffs reviewed the requests, which totaled more than 100 for each member of the delegation.

Ultimately, the legislators narrowed their lists to include the projects that would best benefit the state’s economy, environment, education programs and law enforcement agencies, they said. Those four lists were submitted to congressional appropriations committees, and the sausage making – as the term for making laws goes – started in earnest.

Not every recipient of an earmark went directly to a legislator’s office with a request. Ten of the more than 120 recipients of earmarks sponsored by New Hampshire’s delegation for fiscal year 2008 enlisted the help of a lobbyist at some time or another. Lobbyists assisted organizations as far ranging as defense contractors to Plymouth State University to Phoenix House, the Dublin drug and alcohol treatment facility.

Lobbyists are costly. The fees collected by firms representing New Hampshire earmark recipients last year ranged from $40,000 to $480,000.

But a lobbying firm knows its way around Capitol Hill, and has developed relationships with congressional staffers and lawmakers. Familiarity can help when vying for a lawmaker’s influence.

However, the state’s four legislators say it’s the idea that grabs their attention, not the person pushing it.

“It’s much more effective and much more important for me to hear from the people in New Hampshire,” Sununu said.

Shea-Porter goes as far as to not allow lobbyists into her office unless they’re accompanied by the organization or company they’re representing, she said.

The Adult Learning Center doesn’t know much about how earmarking works, Director Mary Jordan said. But the staff at the Nashua program knew it needed money to fund an initiative that connects parents to teachers so they can better understand their children’s educational needs, she said.

The center contacted the Granite State Organizing Project, which calls itself a non-profit community works collaborative of religious, labor and community organizations. GSOP told Hodes about the family resources center and he liked the idea, Jordan said. The program received $97,000 from a Hodes-sponsored earmark.

“On our own, we never would have got this,” Jordan said.

Click here to return to main earmarks page

Copyright, 2008, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H. All Rights Reserved.