Wednesday, September 03, 2008

False Testimony
The Wasilla Earmarks

Someone pointed out this article from the Washington Post: "Palin's Small Alaska Town Secured Big Federal Funds":

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin employed a lobbying firm to secure almost $27 million in federal earmarks for a town of 6,700 residents while she was its mayor, according to an analysis by an independent government watchdog group.
I am a fiscal conservative. I believe that - to the highest degree possible - things should be organized, and paid for, at the lowest level of government possible. It is part of my belief in subsidiarity:
One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.

This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the Welfare State was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
One of my criticisms of the Bush administration is that they have spent "like a drunken sailor on shore leave": more massively than any administration in US history. Indeed, it is difficult for me not to laugh when folks talk about the Bush administration cutting social service spending - no administration has ever spent more by any gauge.

However, subsidiarity doesn't mean that higher levels of government do not exist, or that they do not need to collect and spend money in support of lower levels of government. The principle is that lowest possible level of government should do the work and raise the money - the one closest to those served. Sarah Palin, as a mayor of Wasilla and Governor of Alaska, has supported this idea - saying that Wasilla, or Alaska, should attempt to do what it needs to do without higher levels of funding.

Higher levels of funding are necessary though. There are issues that cannot be resolved by a single city, or a single state. There are necessary and important improvements that a smaller entity may not be able to afford. Believing that spending should occur at the lowest level does not mean that all higher spending is necessarily wrong. Indeed, this comparison in the Washington Post article seems to me exactly wrong:
In fiscal year 2002, Wasilla took in $6.1 million in earmarks -- about $1,000 in federal money for every resident. By contrast, Boise, Idaho -- which has more than 190,000 residents -- received $6.9 million in earmarks in fiscal 2008.
A city of 190,000 should be better able to "pay its own way" and receive less Federal or state funding than a city of 6,000. Right? Also, I haven't looked into why the shift in years for the comparison - what did Boise get in 2002? If they picked on Portland, OR during the years when we have received the bulk of the funding for the Light Rail projects, our numbers might approach a billion. Finally, Boise has existed and been building infrastructure a lot longer than Wasilla - or indeed Alaska. That is one of those ways half-truths are hatched.

What is an "earmark"? The article says:
federal spending sought by members of Congress to benefit specific projects
That is technically correct; but fails to identify the real problem with earmarks. Barack Obama identified the problem as he teamed up with Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and John McCain to call for an end to earmarks (at least until the election):
"We can no longer accept a process that doles out earmarks based on a member of Congress' seniority, rather than the merit of the project," Obama said in a statement. "We can no longer accept an earmarks process that has become so complicated to navigate that a municipality or non-profit group has to hire high-priced D.C. lobbyists to do it." [Notice that Obama just explained why Wasilla had to hire a lobbyist]
Earmarks are line items inserted directly by members of Congress into legislation - typically large bills. This is not a reference to spending by executive department branches as part of their granting process. The problem with earmarks is:
On paper, earmarks are intended to go through a public process. Lawmakers recognize needs which exist in their respective states or districts, and submit a written request to the appropriate congressional subcommittee asking for the panel’s support. In reality, however, earmarks are often not judged on their merit. Rather, earmarks are typically handed out as favors in exchange for votes on key pieces of legislation by party leaders and appropriations chairmen.

In addition, earmarks are rarely considered by the entire U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate during the construction of a bill. Rather, they are often added during the conference phase, which is when House and Senate leaders meet to iron-out the differences in their respective pieces of legislation on a particular issue. Following the conference, both houses must approve the legislation again, but if a member wishes to oppose a particular earmark, he/she must vote against the entire bill in order to do so. Given that most earmarks are inserted into massive pieces of legislation which fund the federal government, members of Congress are often reluctant to oppose them simply over an earmark. In addition, through the process of logrolling, members often agree to support a bill with another’s earmark in exchange for the same treatment. The result is bills with hundreds, if not thousands, of specifically-directed funding projects. Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said that 98 percent of earmarks to appropriations bills in 2005 were added in the conference phase.
Earmarks have been defended:
In 2001, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) argued that politicians know better than federal agencies how to properly spend money for higher education. He stated, “Nobody knows their constituents or their academic institutions or their programs better than the members of the House or the Senate who represent these organizations...We are in a better position to evaluate the merits of these programs than any executive agency.
Again, the distinction is Congressperson directed spending and not executive branch directed spending -- and really about largely unexamined spending. So, let's look at that list in the first linked article:
A sampling of the 14 earmarks, totaling $26.9 million, directed to the city of Wasilla from 2000 through 2003. Sarah Palin was mayor from 1996 to 2002.
  • $1.9 million for the Wasilla Intermodal Transit Project, to realign rail and bus routes to increase use of public transit in the region. First, this was not an earmark - it was a grant from an executive branch agency - the US Department of the Transportation. Second, it was built in Fairbanks and not Wasilla:
    The Alaska Railroad Corporation will use the $1.9 million grant to build the new intermodal facility to accommodate future expansion and tourism growth . . . “We understand that transportation plays a key role in the economy of Fairbanks . . . The new location is easily accessed from downtown Fairbanks and the airport . . . Major construction is scheduled to be completed in April 2005 with passenger operations set to begin in mid-May. Final completion of the center, including exterior landscaping is expected in July 2005 and will serve passengers arriving from and departing to Denali National Park and Preserve, Talkeetna, Wasilla and Anchorage.
    One down

  • $500,000 for Kids Are People Inc., an emergency shelter for youths transitioning out of juvenile detention facilities. This was an earmark - and you will find it on page 8 of the linked PDF. And, it was actually built in Wasilla. One up.

  • $15 million for a rail project to connect Wasilla with Girdwood, the home town of Sen. Ted Stevens (R). That was the cutest rhetorical trick here. Do you think Stevens is the only resident? This little chunk of railroad is part of this overall plan to solve commuter and recreational traffic problems between Anchorage and the Mat-Su borough - home of 57,000 people of whom 35% commute into Anchorage:
    Wasilla is located in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in south-central Alaska on the (Anchorage to Fairbanks) Parks Highway. Located 43 miles north of Anchorage, Wasilla (and the Mat-Su Valley) is among the fastest growing regions in Alaska. Wasilla . . . is located alongside the Alaska Railroad mainline which stretches from Fairbanks to Anchorage, and then on to Seward.

    Population growth has been rapidly shifting from Anchorage to the Mat-Su Borough over the past 15 years. The population growth in the Borough is partly attributable to the lack of affordable housing and developable land for new residential land tracts in Anchorage. The Mat-Su Borough gained more than 20,000 new residents between 1990 and 2000. The 2000 census states Mat-Su’s population at 59,322, up from 39,683 in 1990, and 17,816 in 1980.

    The majority of people live in the southern part of the Mat-Su Borough (the Mat-Su Valley) within about an hour drive time of the Anchorage metropolitan area. The two largest towns in the Mat-Su Borough are Palmer and Wasilla, each with a current population of roughly 5,000 residents. The “Core-Area” of the Mat-Su Valley is largely residential. Approximately 35% of the employed labor force commutes south to Anchorage on a daily basis

    . . .Direct road access to and from Anchorage through Wasilla came with the construction of the Parks Highway in the early 1970s. This development enabled Anchorage workers and their families to live in the Wasilla area, and commute each day to the city for employment. Support and service industries began to expand to meet the needs of new residents. The City of Wasilla incorporated in 1974, and has developed as the retail and commercial hub of the central Mat-Su Borough.

    Land use patterns have been largely shaped by the early development of the rail and highway corridor. As Wasilla grew, it grew linearly along the rail/highway corridor. As the population increased, demand for north-south crossings of the rail/highway corridor also increased. When the population was small, these crossings were not a problem. With the community’s rapid expansion over the past 15 years, however, the growing population and roadway traffic has overburdened the road network and increased the traffic crossing the highway and railroad as well as the traffic running along these major corridors. The increasing cross traffic (road and pedestrian) coupled with increasing through traffic causes safety concerns for at-grade crossing of both rail and highway facilities. Recreational land development north of Wasilla increased through traffic dramatically and now presents its own problems burdening local traffic pattern. The growth and inefficient layout of the road network exacerbates conditions.

    To deal with the growing traffic problems, the State has embarked on an aggressive road construction program in the area. The state’s emphasis on the Parks Highway corridor reflects the highway’s importance as one of the state’s main commercial corridors and Mat-Su Valley’s rapid growth. Up to 20,000 cars and trucks a day travel along the Parks Highway south of Wasilla. Wasilla is the hub for several regional roads, including the Palmer-Wasilla Highway, Wasilla-Fishhook, and Knik-Goose Bay Road.

    For many years, long-term transportation plans in Wasilla have included either a rail or a highway bypass. The 2002 Parks Highway Corridor Management Plan calls for a possible second or even a third corridor to address the traffic volume anticipated by 2030. The Plan says that if all the roadway(s) have direct access, as many as 12 lanes could be needed to carry the expected east-west traffic in downtown Wasilla. A 1982 Parks Highway location study investigated alternative alignments for the Parks Highway through and around Wasilla to accommodate the projected traffic growth. Eventually, additional travel lanes will be needed on any section not bypassed.

    To help alleviate the growing travel demand through the corridor into Anchorage, the Alaska Railroad has been pursuing rail improvements that, when complete, will provide commuter rail and enhanced passenger services through the corridor
    Sounds to me like part of a comprehensive plan to re-work the entire transportation pattern of a rapidly growing commuter area coupled with a great deal of recreational traffic. Probably not about Steven's house. Two down.

  • [Update 9/14/08: ABC also dealt with this $15M in their "Palin's Record on Pork: Less Sizzle than Reported". Alaska Railroad received this money - not Wasilla; although Wasilla supported the request]

    I included that whole description because one of those "half-truths" is that Wasilla is some "small town" with 5,000 people. Obviously, the description of the region above makes it clear that there is a whole lot more going on in the Mat-Su valley than that.

  • $1.75 million to upgrade emergency communications between authorities at the Wasilla dispatch center. It was a Homeland Security grant, and not an earmark. Also, I found one explanation of part of its use - $440,000 for a mobile communications command vehicle:
    During the flood disaster in August, scouring rivers cut two phone cables. For residents from Willow north, cell phones and the Internet didn't work at one point. Flood responders had fewer paths to communicate through as well. Krill said he and others drove up suitcases of radio equipment that had to be set up in Talkeetna. "We did it piecemeal," Krill said. "With this, if communications are disrupted, the command van can fill that void. We can take it anywhere in the Borough and have an already-established communications operation."
    Three down.

  • $600,000 to upgrade bus stations.. Couldn't find this - so call it an earmark. It is part of the whole intermodal transportation plan for the Mat-su above. two up

  • $900,000 to upgrade water and sewer facilities. This is an earmark that was part of (see page 136)
    $40,000,000 for grants to address drinking water and wastewater infrastructure needs in rural and Alaska Native communities
    Three up. Again, this is a rapidly growing area - and the need to upgrade water and sewer facilities to safeguard the health of the citizens is obvious.

  • So, three of the six earmarks were actually earmarks - and actually directly aimed at Wasilla. The reception of those three is not, in and of itself, a problem. As Barack Obama stated the problem with earmarks is that they are not necessarily judged for their necessity and importance - we do not really know whether Congress did that or not. You now have some information to judge their necessity and importance; and thereby the fitness for office of the one who sought them (and of course the Congress that approved them). Was she representing her community well as its Mayor, or
    "She certainly wasn't shy about putting the old-boy network to use to bring home millions of dollars," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "She's a little more savvy to the ways of Washington than she's let on."
    Another issue is that one commenter criticized Wasilla (and Sarah Palin as it's Mayor) for:
    • Placing itself in debt through bond issues in order to pay for infrastructure; and

    • avoiding debt by seeking funding for necessary infrastructure from the federal government; and

    • doing what Obama pointed out was necessary in order to get federal money - hiring a lobbyist
    How then is Wasilla supposed to pay for necessary infrastructure? As a spokeswoman for Palin said about all this:
    Palin sought the Wasilla earmarks because she was "working in the best interests of Alaska, working within the confines of the current system."
    The political decision: Does this experience recommend Sarah Palin as a Vice-Presidential candidate; or speak against her. Did she feed at the public trough like the rest of the pigs; or did she do what was best for the well-being of the folks she was elected to represent? If you think the earmarks process is broken, will her executive experience seeking and receiving them be a benefit in that reform; or not?

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    How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
    1. The Golden Rule
    2. You cannot read minds
    3. People are not evil
    4. Debates are not for winning
    5. You make mistakes
    6. Not everyone cares as much as you
    7. Engaging is hard work
    8. Differences can be subtle
    9. Give up quietly