While many earmarked projects may be worthwhile, they often get little scrutiny, and districts controlled by Democrats take in twice as much money.
OLYMPIA — The Everett School District will soon get $433,000 from the state to spruce up its sports-stadium complex — even though it didn’t ask for the money.
In Seattle, a nonprofit assisted-living home has received $1 million in state grants to renovate and expand its operations. It’s also been cited with multiple licensing violations and been briefly banned by the state from accepting new residents on three occasions.
And in Tukwila, the state plans to spend $10 million on a road needed for a proposed 490-acre development. The developer is a large contributor to Democrats and has donated to the Senate committee chairwoman who helped get the money.
These projects weren’t handled like the vast majority of those paid for by the state’s capital budget, which totaled $4.3 billion for the 2007-09 budget cycle. They were added — or earmarked — at the request of one or more lawmakers on behalf of their constituents.
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While many earmarked projects may be worthwhile, they often get little scrutiny. Their merits aren’t widely debated in legislative hearings. Sometimes you can’t tell which lawmaker asked for a particular project.
Earmarked spending has reached record highs since Democrats gained control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office in 2004.
Since 2005, lawmakers have spent or allocated nearly $270 million on earmarks in the capital budget, which funds construction projects. That’s more than was spent in the previous 15 years combined.
Millions more in lawmaker-requested spending is included in the state operating budget.
Democratic leaders say the growth in earmarks has little to do with their clout in Olympia.
Yet state records show that districts controlled by Democrats take in twice as much money on average for earmarked projects as districts with Republican lawmakers. Districts with Democrats in leadership positions get three times as much money.
“They come at you like locusts,” Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said about the requests for money. Dunshee chaired the Capital Budget Committee when spending on earmarks first surged in the 2005-07 construction budget.
“This is what motivates people. It makes them feel happy about being legislators. It makes them feel they are helping their folks back home,” he said.
Dunshee says a lack of state oversight has led to questionable spending. But he and other lawmakers also worry that earmarks siphon money from more important needs.
So why don’t budget writers just say no?
In some cases, Dunshee said, the earmarks are needed to win support for the capital budget. A 60 percent vote is needed in both the House and Senate to pass the bonds that pay for the construction.
“You have to get the votes,” Dunshee said. “When you get $500 million in requests, you do say no to a lot of stuff. But if you say no to everything, the place doesn’t function.”
Mirroring national trend
The money for earmarked projects is a fraction of the billions spent on construction statewide, but it consumes a growing share of the budget.
It also mirrors a similar trend in Congress.
On a national level, earmarks for such projects as “the bridge to nowhere,” a proposed $223 million span to connect Alaska’s mainland to Gravina Island, home to 50 people and the Ketchikan airport, have sparked outrage and efforts at reform.
In Washington state, few people pay attention to lawmaker-requested spending.
Some projects are small: $3,000 to help build a smelter “smokestack monument” in Northport, Stevens County; $5,000 for a “Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery” in Seattle, and $10,000 to restore a historical tugboat in Olympia.
Others are much bigger: $1.5 million to help pay for decorative lights on the Tacoma Narrows bridges; $2.2 million for a wine and culinary-arts center in Prosser, Benton County; and $4.4 million to help renovate the art deco Fox Theater in Spokane — which also happens to be Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown’s hometown.
Republicans attribute at least part of the spending surge to Democrats looking to shore up their majority by showing voters they can bring money home to their districts.
“It’s motivated by the desire to go into swing districts and write big checks of taxpayer dollars for special projects and have a photo opportunity,” said Deputy House Republican Leader Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, Whatcom County.
Helen Sommers, chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, probably allows more earmarked spending “to help out new members and give them a boost.”
Nationally, “the fact the majority gets more than the minority is typical,” said Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University political-science professor and an expert on legislative politics.
Chopp said he helps legislators from both parties get projects, and most Republicans end up supporting the construction budget.
He said he wasn’t sure why Democrats get so much more money than Republicans.
“Maybe they are twice as responsive to their constituents,” he said. “Have you ever thought of that?”
Most construction spending is requested by state agencies and universities, or routed through competitive grant programs that distribute the money to applicants.
But lawmakers have several ways to request projects.
The governor can put requests in her budget. In the House, lawmakers fill out a form and turn it in to the chairman of the Capital Budget Committee.
In the Senate, there are no forms, and no way to be sure who asked for a project. Legislators basically talk to Senate Ways and Means Committee vice chairwoman Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, if they have a request. Fraser handles the construction budget for that chamber — and she won’t say who requested which projects.
When requests are made in the House and Senate, Democratic leaders and other lawmakers haggle over which projects should be funded.
“Members just go ape. They say ‘I’m not going to vote for anything if I don’t get my $50,000,’ ” Dunshee said. “There are certain people who, if you tell them ‘no,’ they’re right on to Frank [Chopp].”
Sen. Tim Sheldon, a conservative Democrat from Potlatch, Mason County, says that when Democrats held a narrow majority in the Senate, he was able to leverage his vote to get about $100 million in transportation and capital budget projects for his district.
His 35th District was the second-largest recipient of earmarked capital budget money since 2005.
Dunshee said he’s tried to rein in the earmark process. He created the form that House lawmakers use to ask for a project, figuring that fewer projects would end up in the budget if more information was provided about them.
It didn’t work.
Rep. Fred Jarrett, a moderate Republican from Mercer Island, thinks Dunshee’s form actually made things worse by letting everyone know that money was available.
“It’s a classic unintended consequence,” said Jarrett, who noted that Republicans supported the form at the time.
“Before, you had to be around for a while to figure out how to do this. There was a vetting process that kept out the vast majority of legislators,” he said.
Not a lot of review
The projects themselves often get little review, except for conversations among legislators.
In some cases, it’s not clear what the money will be spent on. The request for the Everett School District sports stadium said “improvements being contemplated … include a new locker room, expansion of seating and additional concession facilities.”
A school official said it likely will be used to renovate an aging locker room, although a final decision is still pending.
Mike Gunn, director of facilities and planning for the district, said the Everett AquaSox minor-league baseball team, which uses the stadium, wanted the money.
The request was submitted by Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, as part a larger lobbying effort for minor-league baseball teams that secured more than $13 million to improve stadiums across the state.
The district knew about the AquaSox request, Gunn said, but “for the public school function — that’s our prime mission — we would not have needed this.”
Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, the House majority whip, played a lead role in getting the $1 million in grants for the Cannon House, an assisted-living retirement home serving low-income seniors that opened in Seattle’s Central District in 2002.
State budget staffers say they’re not aware of any other assisted-living facilities that have received similar grants.
The Cannon House had a history of licensing violations when the Legislature approved the money for expansion and repairs. The violations included failing to ensure that patients who needed help got their medications.
Santos said she believes the violations stemmed from money shortages due to inadequate Medicaid payments by the state. The grants, she said, were a way to help make up for problems the state created.
Lynn French, Cannon House administrator, agreed and blamed the problems mainly on a lack of documentation and work by an outside vendor that has since been replaced. He said they’re now in full compliance with the state.
Pat Jennings, acting assistant director for the DSHS’ Residential Care Services, disputed French’s characterization of the past problems.
“These were not minor issues,” she said.
One of the largest earmarks since 2005 was a total of $10 million in grants for a proposed 490-acre, privately owned development in and around Tukwila.
The money would help pay for improving and extending Southcenter Parkway through the development, which is expected to include research and light-industrial companies, offices and retail stores.
The company developing the property, La Pianta, is run by Mark and Mario Segale, said Lisa Verner, who is coordinating the project for the city of Tukwila. The Segales could not be reached for comment.
The Segales have contributed more than $90,000 to Democratic candidates and organizations since 2000, according to state records.
Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, House Speaker Chopp, and Gov. Christine Gregoire have all have received campaign donations from them.
Prentice, who represents the 11th District, played a lead role in getting state money for the development. She also testified in support of the project before the Tukwila City Council.
Asked how she’d respond to people who might draw a link between the donations and the grants, Prentice said, “If the implication is that I’ve been bribed, come out to my house sometime and look at my manufactured house and the used car that I drive … . I take such horrible offense at that.”
The Segales donated $2,000 to her campaign in 2004. Prentice said she gets donations from a broad spectrum of people because “they like how I work.”
Prentice pointed out that Chopp and Gregoire also helped get the grants.
Chopp said he was only peripherally involved, and he also said the campaign donations had nothing to do with the grants. Gregoire’s staff said the governor supported the grants but wasn’t heavily involved in the project.
The first grant for the project was approved in 2005 as a way to help the economy, Chopp said. If a similar project came before the Legislature today, he added, it would have a hard time getting money because the economy is doing better.
Chopp said he’d like member-requested projects vetted more thoroughly before getting state grants.
He noted the Legislature created a task force this year to look at the issue. One proposal: Have legislators submit requests to the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, which would review them based on criteria set by lawmakers.
For her part, Prentice said she sees nothing wrong with the state helping projects like the one in Tukwila.
“It’s going to provide a whole lot of jobs and a lot of revenue for that area,” she said.
She also sees no reason to have a state agency screen projects before the Legislature takes action.
“Why would we even think of doing that?” she said.
Andrew Garber: email@example.com or 360-236-8268.