Earmarks, Stimuli and State Funding

(Ed: This is the final post in a 3-part series on earmarks. Here are Parts I and II.)

One thing I absolutely wanted to avoid in writing these last few posts was contributing more useless drivel to the “earmarks are wasteful”/”they’re not that wasteful” stalemate.

To the first: yes, they are. To the second: no, they’re not. A thing can be wasteful (read: inefficient) without being all that costly (read: wasteful).

And what earmarks are endemic of is a system that is very inefficient at distributing cash.

Sure, at its best, pork can provide a fleet of buses, school computers, or a new power plant. But at its worst, it uses money better spent elsewhere.

Take the stimulus earmarks Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is belaboring. Give the state of Wisconsin the $840,000 its senator or representative secured for it, and I’ll bet you the money doesn’t go to a low-traffic bridge. Give the state of Pennsylvania $800,000, and John Murtha Airport, based in booming 23,000-strong Johnstown likely doesn’t see a penny. Not because the bridge workers or the airport wouldn’t use or need the money. But because the state has more pressing needs, albeit ones that might not have fit under the stimulus’ umbrella of infrastructure, from which the legislators were so desperately trying to squeeze money.

Now, the nice thing about these projects — and, presumably, most extraneous projects in the stimulus bill — is that they do create jobs. Efficient or not, they do accomplish something objectively useful. But that’s not always the case. (Like the Department of Homeland Security spending $6.5 million annually [pdf] protecting Idaho from terrorist attack.)

All of the above basically makes the conservative federalist argument: state governments good, federal government bad. This principle has been behind the push to use more stimulus funding to prop up state governments.

I think, ostensibly, this is a great idea. States are in an ideal position to distribute funding to education, infrastructure projects, public transportation, you name it, on an as needed basis. And it makes sense to allow those with a working knowledge of local issues to divvy up said funding, rather than letting rabid legislators indiscriminately nab cash for whatever projects they can, much like six-year-olds in one of those money grabbing machines.

However, state programs, much like federal programs, don’t go away when funding ceases. And when that federal funding does vanish — which it will — states will be faced with two options. Cutting those nice education grants or public transportation funds — money that localities at some point will come to depend on — or plunging into further debt, lacking a viable way to raise the money on their own. Keep in mind that states are in a bidding war with one another for businesses, which means a constant push to lower taxes. Texas, for instance, has no income tax, and its sales tax isn’t so high as to replace the revenue. California spends like federal government while politically crippling the revenue-raising tools available to it, leaving the state a budget crisis.

A near-perfect case study for the topic at hand is No Child Left Behind. Here we have an ostensibly federal program that leaves a not insignificant share of its funding to states. It’s not difficult to imagine a similar scenario in which the federal government provided states with temporary help in say, subsidizing clean energy, then pulled it post-recession and expected the states to magically make up the difference.

So ostensibly, yes: states good/feds bad. But as a matter of practicality, I don’t think using more stimulus funds to prop up state governments as many have advocated is the ideal scenario some would suggest.

As for the earmarks, they’re a product of systemic flaws. Shy of a Congressional rule change — say, a more restrictive “stay on topic” rule within legislation — or a line-item presidential veto, they aren’t going anywhere. The best bet in the short term is to hope that earmarks become less specific; $800,000 to Wisconsin for infrastructure as opposed to $800 grand for some bridge the local bureaucracy may later realize isn’t all that important.

Addendum: I should note that a good deal of money is going to state governments from the stimulus packages. And, again, I think that’s generally a good thing. But I would caution those who ask for more at the expense of the temporary “shovel-ready” stuff.


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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