Arizona lawmakers raise requests for earmarks by $194 million
WASHINGTON – Add another item to the long list of things that Republican and Democratic members of Arizona’s congressional delegation disagree on: earmarks.
For a second straight year, Republicans refrained from requesting any funding for local projects, while Democrats this year raised their requests by more than $194.5 million, a 43% increase over last year, when earmarks were restored after a decade-long hiatus.
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The increase was sharpest in the House, where Arizona lawmakers asked for $148.1 million, more than three times the $45.2 million in “community project funding” they sought last year. The House also raised the number of projects members could request, from 10 last year to 15 this year.
The bulk of the requests came, not surprisingly, from the state’s senators, who are not limited in the number of “congressionally directed spending requests” and who seek projects statewide: Sen. Mark Kelly’s requests went from $210.7 million last year to $254.6 million this year, while Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s requests rose from $192.1 million to $239.5 million in the same period. Their requests appeared to be about in the middle of the pack for the Senate.
Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, who asked for a relatively modest $26.6 million this year in local project funding, defends the program as needed and targeted.
“For many decades, Arizona hasn’t received its fair share of federal funds – our tax dollars have gone to fund projects in other states,” Stanton said in an emailed statement. “That’s unacceptable.”
But critics say the program to fund congressionally directed, local projects is little more than wasteful “pork-barrel spending” on projects that would not merit funding otherwise, criticism that led earmarks to be put on hold for more than a decade.
“You can put lipstick on a pig, but … I know that’s a cliché, but the point is that an earmark is still an earmark,” said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “No matter how it’s defined, it means that members of Congress are obtaining funds outside of the regular appropriations process.”
Schatz noted that former Arizona Sen. John McCain was one of the driving forces behind a 2011 move to ban earmarks, which McCain called “wasteful pork-barrel spending” and a “gateway drug to corruption and overspending.”
But Congress lifted that ban last year, with new safeguards against past abuses. Lawmakers have to report every request, show need and community support for it, and prove that neither they nor any family members will benefit from the funding. House members are limited in the number of projects they can request – senators are not – but the total number of earmarks approved cannot account for more than 1% of the budget’s discretionary spending.
Arizona’s five House Democrats asked for $148.1 million to fund 75 projects this year, while the state’s two Democratic senators each requested 106 projects, totaling $494.1 million. There is some duplication in the requests: Kelly, Sinema and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Tucson, all sought millions to fund a gate and other projects at Morris Air National Guard Base, for example.
For the second year in a row, Kirkpatrick led the state’s House delegation with a total request for $38.5 million, well above the median House request of $27.8 million.
“We were not trying to be like, ‘Oh, we’re only going to pick the projects that have the most money.’ That’s not how we thought,” said Abigail O’Brien, Kirkpatrick’s chief of staff. “We really tried to prioritize the projects that made the most sense and could do the most good.”
Kirkpatrick was followed by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, whose $37.1 million request ranked 92nd among the 345 House members who put in requests. Other Arizona Democrats were Reps. Tom O’Halleran of Sedona, whose $31.5 million request put him in 139th place; Stanton, whose $26.6 million was 189th; and Rep. Raul Grijalva of Tucson, whose $14.4 million request was 319th. Kirkpatrick was in 83rd place.
O’Brien said one reason for the increased number of requests this year is that lawmakers were more familiar and knowledgeable about the process than last year.
“There is a desire to make those community project funding dollars stretch as far as they can this year,” she said.
The largest single requests in Arizona came from Sinema and Kelly,