WASHINGTON - As Republican frontrunner in the U.S. Senate race, Dino Rossi has loudly criticized his opponent, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, for the hundreds of millions of dollars she has earmarked in federal spending bills for Washington state. He supports an outright ban on such earmarks.
But during his two terms in the state Senate, Rossi was no stranger to Olympia’s version of earmarks – or, as lawmakers call them, “locally targeted investments.”
They are also known as “bacon bits,” little pieces of pork for their districts that lawmakers lobby influential committee chairmen to include in the state budget. Rossi was no exception.
State Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park, recalls when Rossi sent her a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts after she inserted one of his funding requests in the capital budget she was writing in 2002.
“The only Krispy Kreme store in the state, at the time, was in his district,” Fairley recalled.
Though there are other issues, the Washington Senate race has become in part a referendum on earmarks. At first glance, the battle lines are clear.
Over the past two years alone, Murray has secured more than $500 million in earmarks for Washington state for everything from DNA testing kits used in rape cases to increased security along the Canadian border to preserving disease-free cuttings of wine grapes. One congressional watchdog group has called her the “queen of pork.”
Murray makes no apologies. That, she said, is what she was elected to do.
“You go back to Washington, D.C., with 99 other senators and convince them what’s important for your state,” she said in an interview.
Rossi counters that such spending, though it makes up only roughly one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, is helping balloon the federal deficit. “It is bankrupting America,” he said.
But as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee in Olympia, Rossi wrote a 2003-05 state budget that contained dozens of member requests. Nestled in the budget were $19 million worth of projects funded through the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development and $5.6 million funded through the Community Services Facilities program.
It also provided grants of $500,000 or less to 47 projects through what was known as the Local Community Projects program.
The Rossi budget included $500,000 for a pirate-themed water park, $150,000 to acquire land for new gun and archery ranges, $500,000 for new turf at a high school, $350,000 for baseball fields, and money for a farmers market, a skateboard project, a naval museum and salmon habitat restoration.
Tracking earmarks at the state level can be even harder than at the federal level, where Murray and other senators are now required to post their requests on their office websites. But Rossi’s budget also included $600,000 for construction of a dock at a park in his legislative district and $400,000 for a local Boys & Girls Club.
Rossi could also sound a little like Murray when describing funding he had secured.
“That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t make it happen,” Rossi was quoted as saying in the Northwest Asian Weekly newspaper of the $1.5 million in funding he secured for the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle.
Rossi said member requests are handled differently in Olympia than they are in Washington, D.C., where they are added to bills in the “dark of night” without being thoroughly vetted.
“We don’t have earmarks in Olympia,” Rossi said, adding that the procedure for including member requests was more organized than the “grabbing and pushing in D.C.” with Republicans and Democrats participating in an open process.
As chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee, Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, has more than a passing knowledge of how Olympia operates.
“Of course they are earmarks,” Dunshee said. “His caucus had plenty, and as chairman he participated.”
In the House, Dunshee said members have to fill out a form justifying their request. The state Senate has always been a “little more back of the napkin” in the way it handles the requests from its members, he said.
Dunshee defends the practice.
“It is legislators being responsive to the needs of their districts,” he said.
Despite the harsh rhetoric, earmarks apparently barely register as an issue in the minds of voters. Earmarks didn’t even show up among the most important issues in the 2010 election in a Washington Poll released by the University of Washington in May. More than 60 percent of those polled said jobs and the economy was the top issue followed by health care reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taxes and education.
And, a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found 53 percent of those surveyed would be more likely to vote for a candidate who brought government projects and money to their home districts.
Rossi acknowledged the poll, but said there was a larger issue involved.
“You have to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “Most people think spending is out of control and this is part of it.”
Political analysts say earmarks are a symbol.
“It’s not as pure as earmarks are good or bad,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate and House races for the Cook Political Report. “They are symbolic of excessive government spending.”
Duffy said that the earmark issue is also playing in races in Nevada, New Hampshire, Missouri, Florida and Kentucky.
Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, said a ban on earmarks is a hard sell for Rossi because voters like it when lawmakers bring money home for their states or districts.
“It’s what we want our elected officials to do,” Barretto said. “It’s a risky position for Rossi to take.”
Barretto said the earmark issue may have some appeal to “tea party types” in the primary, but Rossi should drop it for the general election.
Rossi, however, isn’t about to let go, calling for not only a ban on earmarks but giving the president a line-item veto so inappropriate appropriations can be deleted from the budget.
“Until the (federal) budget is balanced, there shouldn’t be any earmarks,” he said.
Murray, meanwhile, said no one knows the needs of a state better than the elected officials who represent it. The U.S. Constitution gives the power of the purse to Congress, not the executive branch, and federal officials should not have the final say when it comes to local projects, she said.
By way of example, Murray said, when she was pursuing additional funding for ferries, a federal bureaucrat she spoke with didn’t even know there were ferries in Washington state – home to the largest ferry system in the country.
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008 firstname.lastname@example.org