In the August 21st edition of Review Magazine, we wrote on the issue of earmarked funds from the federal government, otherwise known as pork barrel spending. We focused on whether there is a true need for a new $14 million exit ramp from northbound Interstate 675 near downtown.
Earmarks are a method for your tax dollars to be returned to your local communities for special purposes, with a whole lot of politics involved. A local result is the planned I-675 ramp.
This may not be a topic that immediately grabs you. But if you want to know what happens to a good chunk of the federal income tax that is withheld in your paycheck, you are welcome to pay attention.
Earmarks add up to more than $50 billion per year, representing $170 for every American citizen, including you. A notorious example of an earmark three years ago was $233 million for an Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere" that would have paid for an artery to a tiny small island. Most are not so blatant and many are constructive.
This is similar to how the Iraq War, at $120 billion annually, represents $400 per year per citizen. If you paid someone $170 or $400 on a personal dealing, wouldn't you want to know the result?
In this article we will give you some Saginaw samples of earmarks. If you will bear with us, you will gain some insight into what is happening to your $170.
Can't Fight City Hall?
The federal government bureaucracy is so huge that it grows beyond the control even of our own elected officials (535 in Congress) who are supposed to be in charge. As explained last issue, U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee secured a $12 million earmark for a new Interstate 675 downtown exit ramp. This became $14 million with a matching $2 million from state government.
Kildee would have been glad to reap $12 million, or $12 billion for that matter, for any purpose. He simply was working through the system and reacting to local suggestions, based on the system.
Local leaders appreciate that Kildee has worked through the bureaucracy to get these funds for I-675. At the same time, they assert that if no strings were attached, they would spend the $14 million for more urgent needs. Examples: Resurface more local streets (88 miles). Tear down blighted houses (more than 2,000). Re-employ more cops and firefighters (10 per year, ongoing). All of these concerns are deemed more important than the I-675 exit ramp.
But the exit ramp is what we're getting, from 2009 through 2012.
Our follow-up reporting has revealed even more intense reaction to how so-called federal pork barrel spending (including $170 of your money) is distributed for local needs. This occurs even though everyone involved acts with the best of intentions.
The Review asked Odail Thorns Jr., the City of Saginaw's development director, for his thoughts. Thornsis a former General Motors/Delphi top executive who emerged from retirement three years ago to work in the public sector, so his perspective is unique. He told us upfront that although he understands Kildee's actions, he considers the $14 million I-675 ramp "a waste of money" compared to other needs.
This reflects sentiments that local politicians share but are reluctant to admit, because they simply want to grab whatever federal pork is available. We were told this on August 28 when Thorns met with elected representatives from the City Council, the Saginaw Board of Education and the Saginaw County Board of Education.
It also so happens, by exact coincidence, that Odail Thorns three years ago mentioned $14 million in an independent analysis when he took office. He evaluated a report on Saginaw's 800 abandoned houses, and 600 garages and sheds, and he described this as "a $14 million problem" that would need to be resolved.
At the time, he had no way of realizing the comparison with $14 million for Interstate 675.
So as a citizen, which would you prefer for $14 million? Add a new ramp to I-675, or tear down these 800 abandoned houses and the related 600 garages and sheds?
Thorns personally would support the blight option. He has devoted his efforts to gathering federal and state funds. This year, he has reaped $265,000 from federal block grants and $353,000 from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. This is enough to tear down about 100 eyesores. However, Thorns expected Kildee to produce $670,000 for another 100 demolitions.
Kildee indeed had sent a November 2007 press release that indicated he had "secured" the money for Saginaw in the U.S. House, which are peanuts in the big picture. However, the bill had to go to conference in the U.S. Senate with Michigan's Debbie Stabenow. And Stabenow secured the Saginaw money in a pork-barrel transportation bill, but now it was geared to riverfront development.
Thorns felt betrayed and protested to Kildee staffers, who tried to explain that Saginaw still was getting the cash, just for a different purpose.
Odail Thorns, with his background in private enterprise, is upset that the proposed $670,000 was redirected from neighborhoods to the riverfront. Dale Kildee's staffers, with their experience in federal government, feel Thorns just should be happy that Saginaw received an earmark for any purpose whatsoever. The two sides have clashed.
That's the system. Is it working in our best interests? Readers may submit their reactions to us at email@example.com.
The Review already has received in-depth responses from two City Council members, Greg Branch and Bill Scharfee, for publication in a future edition.
What is your opinion of the pork-barrel spending system?
And when Barack Obama and John McCain say they will review the budget "line item by line item" to cut costs and establish priorities, are they being realistic?
Your reactions are welcome.