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April 9, 2022

Earmarks, or targeted federal funding in the region, are back

By Sten Spinella

s.spinella@theday.com

Whether you prefer to call it pork barrel spending, earmarks or community projects, the practice of using federal funds for local initiatives chosen by Congress members is back after a 10-year hiatus.

In all, Connecticut’s U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal brought more than $150 million of funding to Connecticut in earmarks, for projects in municipalities throughout the state that would protect Long Island Sound, invest in education and aid in workforce development, among other objectives.

In 2011, after it was widely known that certain members of Congress were using earmarks for personal gain or to help their friends, the practice was banned. But, in part because of Connecticut’s U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, this sort of federal spending has returned, now with a lot more rules governing the process.

In a letter to her congressional colleagues in March of last year, DeLauro said the Appropriations Committee is “soliciting Community Project Funding requests.” The letter included guidance on how to file such requests, with an emphasis on transparency.

Now, with a $1.5 trillion government spending bill passed in March, the first round of earmarks in a decade is manifesting.

“For transparency in the process, Members are required to post their Community Project Funding requests online concurrently with their submission of regular appropriations requests to the Committee,” the letter reads. “Members are also required to certify that neither they nor their immediate family have a financial interest in the Community Project Funding requests that they make. For the Committee to consider a Community Project Funding request, these requirements must be met.”

“It is not your grandfather’s earmark process. They completely eliminated any private entities from having eligibility for community projects, which is a big change,” Courtney said. “When I first came to Congress, it was the waning days of the prior earmarking system, so private companies could be the beneficiaries of earmarks. That’s gone; it’s nonprofits and public entities. The committee demands that if you come in with a project, it has to be screened by the state agency that has cognizance over things like roads and bridges.”

Courtney and DeLauro said Congress members know their districts better than federal agency officials. Courtney also pointed out that earmarking has returned in part because it drives bipartisanship. He mentioned the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which is supposed to study and eventually recommend ways to make Congress “more effective, efficient, and transparent on behalf of the American people,” according to its webpage.

“One thing identified by this group was that when members don’t feel like they have any skin in the game when spending bills come through, they feel much more free to create shutdowns and all the budget disruption that really has characterized the past 10-year period,” Courtney said. “One way to reconstruct a system to reduce that risk was to give people more ownership. When you step back and look at the total amount of federal budget, this is less than or about 1% of the federal budget. And I think I know my district better than a lot of agency officials in Washington about where we need help.”

Courtney and the Connecticut delegation repeatedly have talked about how the state can and has benefitted from DeLauro, of New Haven, running the powerful Appropriations Committee. Courtney has secured about $9.7 million for earmarks across 10 municipalities, including five in New London County. Blumenthal has brought back about $144 million in earmarks — he and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., jointly requested the money for community projects.

In a statement, DeLauro spoke of why earmarks have come back to the legislative process.

“The Community Project Funding included in the federal spending package meets urgent needs in districts across the country and sends a clear message to the American people that Congress is working for them,” she said. “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle recognize that this funding will help our communities — it creates jobs, boosts the economy, and invests in working families. I am proud this funding was included and look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure the same high transparency standards continue to guide the process.”

Courtney projects

Aside from projects in Putnam, Vernon, Scotland, Enfield and one with the Capitol Region Council of Governments in collaboration with the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, Courtney also has brought funding for projects in Groton, New London, Norwich and Stonington.

New London

Mitchell College is receiving $550,000 for its Digital Innovation Hub for Educational Excellence Program, which would, according to college President Tracy Espy, provide students badges and certificates in subjects like data analytics, digital marketing and cybersecurity.

Per Courtney’s office, the program is meant to “provide new credentialing and coursework in STEM and behavioral health careers” for traditional and nontraditional students. The funding would be used to hire one staff member and purchase equipment that would “support in-person and virtual learning as well as STEM education.”

Reliance Health, a nonprofit community mental health center, will be able to hire two additional recovery coaches serving New London County with $125,000 in earmarked funds. These coaches work with people with substance abuse issues “to plant a seed of hope that recovery is possible, empower the person to engage in their own recovery plan, shorten time connecting individuals to treatment, increase access to basic needs, and lengthen amount of time the person sustains recovery,” according to Courtney’s office.

Norwich

The city’s emergency services are getting a new dispatch and records management system due to $700,000 in earmark funding. Police Chief Patrick Daley said last year that he submitted the request to Courtney’s office when the congressman sought funding priority needs from municipalities in his district.

A fire services study presented to the City Council in February 2021 urged upgrades to the emergency fire dispatch and fire radios and communications equipment. Daley said the emergency dispatch computer system is a key component of the upgrade. The city’s current dispatch computer system was installed in 2003, Daley said.

Stonington

The town is receiving almost $2 million to improve safety and water infrastructure. The money will be used in part for new water main construction. Courtney’s office noted that the project is meant to ensure resilience from climate change and sea level rise.

Groton

Groton Public Schools is set to receive $150,000 for its “Career Pathways Program,” which is meant to prepare students for careers in local/in-demand industries. The money would be used to hire a part-time career counselor, fund a summer teacher training program, a summer student internship program, redesign 2,000 square feet of career and technical education classroom space and produce new marketing materials for the pathways program, according to Courtney’s office.

“Groton came forward with a very strong request, which is tied to the workforce opportunity that exists here, and helping the school system connect to that,” Courtney said.

Blumenthal and Murphy

With projects throughout the state, Blumenthal and Murphy’s earmarked projects weren’t as focused on the region as Courtney’s. But, the two senators did ensure $725,000 for a coastal resiliency project in Groton, $720,000 for River Road pumping station upgrades in Stonington, as well as millions to preserve and protect Long Island Sound, including $5 million in funding for a soil survey.

“These funds will create more job prospects and economic opportunity, strengthen our bridges, prevent pollution in our waters, enhance public safety communications, reduce gun violence, provide additional affordable housing, and improve health outcomes,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “These projects are a force multiplier for economic growth and strengthening our communities spurring further growth throughout our state.”

Courtney already has begun collecting ideas from the public on next year’s round of earmark spending, after holding a virtual event to that effect last week.

Read more: https://www.theday.com/local-news/20220409/earmarks-or-targeted-federal-funding-in-the-region-are-back/