OLYMPIA — After a long dry spell, state lawmakers loaded up on earmarks benefiting their home districts this year, spending more than $170 million on projects such as parks, museums, even wood-pellet stoves for schools — all with little public debate and often vague descriptions in the budget.
Funding has reached an apparent high after shrinking dramatically during the economic downturn and is helping pay for everything from a college radio station to a monument honoring a Russian ship.
While not a lot of money compared to the overall $3.6 billion, two-year capital budget, which funds public works such as sewers and school construction, some lawmakers argue the spending needs to be reined in.
“I’m very concerned about the growth,” said Sen. Jim Honeyford, of Sunnyside, Yakima County, Senate GOP lead for the state capital budget.
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While the projects are generally worthwhile, Honeyford said, lawmakers “have insatiable appetites” for earmarks.
Congress has theoretically banned the practice. Republicans adopted a moratorium after they took control of the U.S. House in 2011. President Obama that same year said he’d veto any bill with earmarks, although there have been reports that Congress has figured out other ways of sending money back home.
In Olympia, lawmakers approved more than 100 earmarks this year
. The projects are not labeled as such. Finding them generally requires talking to budget writers and staff. Figuring out what the money would buy, and which lawmaker sponsored it, takes even more legwork.
Some of the biggest earmarks in the current budget include nearly $25 million to relocate community-college health programs and nonprofit social-service providers into Seattle’s PacMed Center; $14 million to help renovate former Naval barracks into affordable housing; and $10 million to plan and buy land for a new university center in Everett run by Washington State University.
There were smaller projects, too, including money for a University of Washington branch-campus radio station, a monument outside Forks, Clallam County, and a library in Whatcom County that total $160,000 combined.
Earmarks sidestep the normal vetting that most capital budget expenditures go through. Community colleges’ projects, for instance, usually go through a competitive process in which all the proposals get ranked in order of importance. The list gets approved by the state Board for Community & Technical Colleges and then is sent to the Legislature for consideration.
Honeyford takes some of the responsibility for the spike in spending this year. He championed a proposal, approved by the Legislature, to spend $100 million to buy 50,000 acres in Kittitas County as part of a broader deal to improve irrigation and fisheries in Eastern Washington.
The deal was widely publicized, debated in the Legislature and supported by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, so Honeyford doesn’t consider it an earmark.
It’s an admittedly gray area.
Even so, Honeyford said, other lawmakers took note, reasoning, “Well, Honeyford is getting $100 million (in the capital budget); how come we’re not?”
Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, the Democrats’ lead on the capital budget, said Honeyford was getting pressure from his caucus because of that, “and from my side of the aisle, we’re looking for some equity.”
Over in the House, Capital Budget Chairman Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said legislators were looking at the Senate budget and saying, “Hey, look at all the crap they’re getting; why don’t I get something?”
The vast majority of earmarks are generally put in the state Department of Commerce’s budget because it is the main agency that oversees grants to community groups and local government. An analysis by the agency shows that earmarks in its budget peaked during the 2007-09 budget at about $168 million.
That number shrank to $29 million by the 2011-13 budget because of the recession, but then more than quadrupled to about $130 million this year.
Dunshee and others pointed out additional earmarks not in Commerce’s budget, including millions of dollars that went to build schools in several districts, bringing the total to more than $170 million, or much higher depending on whether the Kittitas County land purchase is considered an earmark.
The exact total this year, as in past budgets, is hard to determine because of the difficulty in identifying earmarks.
Dunshee argues that while he believes earmarks go to worthy causes, it’s not a good idea for a growing proportion of the capital budget to be spent that way. It’s better, he said, for state spending to go through a competitive process to ensure that the highest-priority projects get funded first.
Most legislators interviewed said they agree — but then argued their proposal was different.
State House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, for example, spearheaded efforts to get $20 million in the capital budget to move Seattle Central Community College health programs, and nonprofit social-service providers, into the PacMed Center on Beacon Hill.
Another $4.8 million in the state operating budget would cover the college’s lease payments and operating costs for the first two years.
Although the project went outside the normal vetting process for community colleges, Chopp said in an interview last month that sometimes the Legislature needs to move more quickly than the normal process allows.
“You want to be open to opportunities that come up,” he said.
Chopp also played a role, along with others, in getting $14 million to purchase Building 9 at Magnuson Park and help renovate it for 180 affordable-housing units, according to Randy Hodgins, vice president of external affairs at the University of Washington.
The structure, once used as barracks at the Sand Point Naval Air Station, is owned by the UW, and $4 million of the appropriation would be used to acquire the title from the university.
Dunshee was one of several lawmakers who pushed to get $10 million in the capital budget to plan for a new facility run by WSU in Everett.
Boeing needs more engineers and that part of the state is underserved by higher education, Dunshee argues.
There’s a “tension between opportunity and this evil thing we call earmarks. It’s hard to draw that line,” he said. “WSU was an opportunity … I would not want to preclude opportunities such as WSU, PacMed and (the land purchase in Kittitas County). I still think we need to restrict those to real, significant opportunities.”
Most earmarks in the capital budget are for relatively small amounts, less than $1 million. But finding out what the money will pay for can be difficult.
There’s no legislation tied to the expenditures, for the most part, and in the case of Senate requests, very little information.
When asked for information describing most of the earmarks, the state Department of Commerce sent a list that had no information for more than half of them. The descriptions for the remainder lacked details.
For example, the budget allocates $30,000 for something called UWAVE, $40,000 for the Nikolai Project, and $90,000 for South Whatcom Library Construction. In each case, the agency said it was waiting for information from the Legislature.
An Internet search and a few phone calls revealed that UWAVE is a new student radio station at the UW campus in Bothell. The state money will help pay for new equipment.
The Nikolai Project turns out to be a historical monument, located on the Upper Hoh Road outside of Forks, that commemorates the story of a Russian ship (the Nikolai) that became stranded off the Washington coast in 1808. The state money will help finish off the project.
The money for South Whatcom Library will help complete a $330,000 project to turn an old barn into a new library branch about eight miles south of Bellingham.
Short of tracking down people through the Internet, you can also try getting information from the lawmakers who put in the requests. If you can determine who that is.
The capital budget, for instance, has a $500,000 request for “wood pellet heat in schools pilot.” The Department of Commerce description adds little, only saying the money would initiate “a pilot program for heating rural schools with wood pellet stoves.”
The budget does not indicate which lawmaker requested the money; however, the pilot would be located in the 7th Legislative District, according to state records. State Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, Stevens County, represents that district.
He sponsored a bill
that requires Washington State University, “subject to receiving federal and private funds,” to develop a pilot program “to demonstrate the feasibility of using densified biomass (otherwise known as a wood pellet) to heat public schools.”
Reached by phone, Smith said he did request money to pay for pellet stoves, designed for commercial use, for the pilot project.
He sees it as a way to potentially save schools money at a time when the state is trying to increase funding for education. “I believe this is a wise use of funds,” he said.
Honeyford said he would like the Legislature to get some measure of control over earmarks in the future, possibly by getting all the sides together “and say this is the total dollar amount, and we’re going to split it equally, whether it’s going to be $250,000 per member or whatever,” he said.
When asked if legislative leaders could just say no to the requests, Honeyford pointed out passing the bill authorizing the state to borrow money for projects requires 60 percent of the House and Senate to vote for the measure.
Getting that many votes requires giving some lawmakers the earmarks they want, he said.
“Somehow we’ve got to get control and I don’t know how that is,” Honeyford said. “I’m open to all suggestions.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org