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Projects touchy for lawmakers

Earmarks, and how they're paid for, aren't something members of Congress want to reveal too much about.

Published March 11, 2006

WASHINGTON - It is the latest cause for introspection in the U.S. Congress, and cause for the latest push for reform: the earmark, as they're called, those goodies for hometown projects and contributors that lawmakers tuck into massive spending bills and that rarely get public scrutiny.

A veteran House member was sentenced to prison last week for taking bribes in return for earmarking federal spending for particular projects. The new House majority leader won in part because he claims never to have sought an earmark. The House and the Senate are considering new rules that would publicly link members' names to specific earmarks.

But getting members of Congress to provide full disclosure on their own?

That's another matter.

The St. Petersburg Times asked Florida's two U.S. senators and the five Tampa Bay-area House members for all of their appropriations requests for the current budget year, after Rep. Katherine Harris of Longboat Key released hers in hopes of quieting the controversy over a $10-million earmark she sought for a campaign contributor tied to the congressional bribery scandal.

The results were uneven. Four House members - Mike Bilirakis, Jim Davis, Adam Putnam and C.W. Bill Young - complied completely, although Young's status as an appropriations subcommittee chairman means he plays by different rules.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson provided what his office described as a detailed list of projects that were funded, and how much each project received.

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez pulled together a list of projects he announced in press releases throughout the past year, which his office called a complete account of his funded projects.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, released a partial list based on past press releases.

Brown-Waite, Nelson and Martinez each declined to share any requests that got no money.

Their responses offer insight into the murky world of federal appropriations, where lawmakers have wide latitude to secretly seek money for projects benefiting hometown institutions, important regional industries and contributors. The exercise also shows why the barriers to true reform are high: Some members of Congress are wary about revealing links between earmarks and campaign contributors and strongly deny any correlations, while others don't want to reveal how few of their requests actually get funded.

But the use of earmarks has been climbing in recent years, to an estimated $32.7-billion last year, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, which is trying to track them. Some lawmakers and government watchdogs say citizens deserve to know what projects their politicians try to fund so they can gauge their priorities, effectiveness and loyalties.

"The point is that, particularly in the last year, this Congress has earmarked a tremendous amount of spending, and members of Congress should be willing to stand up and say, "I supported this, and this is why.' And that includes me," said Davis, a Tampa Democrat who has cosponsored a bill that would require members to disclose their earmarks. He is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Last week, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking $2.4-million in bribes from MZM Inc. in return for steering millions of dollars to the company through defense bill earmarks.

MZM also gave Harris' congressional campaign $50,000 in 2004, and she later requested $10-million for a project in Sarasota for the company. She has not been accused of any wrongdoing and says she supported the MZM project because it would have meant jobs for her district. The Longboat Key Republican is now running for Nelson's Senate seat.

After days of pressure, last week she took the unprecedented step of releasing what she described as her earmark requests for the last two years, including the one for MZM, which wasn't funded.

"If Katherine Harris put out the list, then 534 other members can do it too," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

But in response to the Times request, several Florida lawmakers complained it would be unfair to release all requests, which they often make on behalf of local governments, universities, community groups and businesses. Many aren't funded.

In agreeing to release only the funded earmarks, Nelson's staff said they were comporting with a proposed bill that would require disclosure of all funded earmarks. Nelson supports the bill.

"The public has a right to know how their money is being spent and who's proposing to spend it," Nelson said in a statement.

Martinez's staffers said they did not want to release the list of requests that didn't get money because it could hurt the chances of getting funding next time.

In refusing to release her list, Brown-Waite said she asks her eight local counties for their most pressing needs, then seeks funding.

"I would suggest that if the St. Pete Times is interested in seeing what my 5th District elected officials feel is important ... that they request copies of the project request letters sent to my office by each of the eight counties," she said in a statement.

Brown-Waite also said she doesn't request earmarks for private companies that aren't linked to existing federal programs.

None of the earmark requests provided by Davis, Putnam or Bilirakis showed any requests for privately funded projects, or earmarks for specific companies. They are heavy on road projects, water and sewer improvements, research at local universities and funding for community organizations.

Davis' funded earmarks totaled $40.5-million, compared with $13.4-million for Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, and $3.6-million for Putnam, R-Bartow, whose district is largely rural.

Young, R-Indian Shores, secured $323-million in earmarks. As former chairman of the Appropriations Committee and now head of its defense subcommittee, he doesn't submit requests like the others; he knows how much money is available and only asks for what he knows he will get. He releases his list each year.

In the Senate, with only 100 members, the share of the pie is much bigger, and the breadth and value of their earmarks is much larger.

Martinez helped secure $399-million last year for dozens of projects, including $1-million to develop a mechanical harvester for citrus, $2-million for streetcars in Miami and $700,000 for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.

Nelson secured a whopping $1.1-billion last year, but that includes many of the funding requests that were endorsed by the defense committee he sits on. It also includes $127-million for Everglades restoration, $344,000 to study how grapefruit juice interacts with common medicines and $1.5-million for migratory shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

But most of the projects Martinez and Nelson helped get funded were related to the military. Defense contractors also are major campaign contributors for both Nelson and Martinez. Eight companies Martinez secured earmarks for have contributed $33,000 to his campaign, while Nelson has received $108,000 from 13 companies that got earmarks in this year's budget, records show.

The defense industry also is Young's largest contributor, having given him more than a half-million dollars since 1989.

Florida is home to 21 military bases. Records show the senators each obtained hundreds of millions of dollars last year for defense contractors in the state, from $1-million to BAE Systems North America Inc. for radar upgrades at Eglin Air Force Base to $351-million to Armor Holdings Inc. of Jacksonville for armored Humvees.

Nelson's share totaled $916-million, about two-thirds of which will be spent in Florida. But many of the projects he requested were sponsored by most committee members and have little or no Florida connection.

It also can be difficult to find each earmark's origin, because Florida senators routinely include on their lists the earmark requests from Florida House members. Earmarks from House members from the same region, like Davis and Young, often overlap as well.

Putnam, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said he's been meeting with colleagues to seek a consensus on these issues. "Transparency, sunshine, disclosure are recurring themes in the conversations that I am having with my colleagues," he said. "I think people are in general agreement that names ought to be associated with earmarks that are funded."

And as for releasing all requests?

"That's a discussion that we're having," he said. "I could go either way. ... I see no reason why members would be reluctant to stand by projects that they are advocating for their district."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and Washington bureau chief Bill Adair contributed to this report

[Last modified March 11, 2006, 01:44:48]

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