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Politics

Bill Nelson Tone Deaf on Earmarks

December 14, 2010 - 6:00pm

Apparently, Bill Nelson didn't get the memo. Or maybe he just forgot.

From President Barack Obama to the lowest ranking Republican on Capitol Hill, budget earmarks have become a Washington whipping boy.

But Florida's senior senator is sparing the rod and liberally piling on the pork as he and fellow Democrats in the state's House delegation shoved millions of dollars in special projects into the lame-duck Congress' omnibus budget bill this week.

"It seems Democrats learned nothing from the 2010 election," said Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo, who trounced one-term Democratic Rep. Suzanne Kosmas this fall. "A 2,000-page spending bill loaded with billions in earmarks? Ridiculous."

Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, is hoping to go out with a bang as she sponsored several earmarks, including $1 million for a veterans medical city connector and $250,000 for park expansion in the city of Winter Park.

But Kosmas is a piker compared to the flip-flopping Nelson, who just weeks ago voted for an earmark ban. Now he leads Florida's pork-barrel parade. Among his largest parlays:

  • $2 million for Florida Keys water quality improvements;
  • $1.65 million for Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 36/46;
  • $1.5 million for St. John's Heritage Parkway interchanges;
  • $1.2 million for Jacksonville commuter rail alternative analysis;
  • $1 million for Cooperative Grouper-Snapper Fisheries Data Collection.

While individual earmark projects may be worthy endeavors, such special set-asides have come under fire because they skirt the usual committee-hearing process and, thus, lack transparency.

Outgoing Republican Sen. George LeMieux calls earmarks "the gateway drug to ever-growing spending." LeMieux, who is considering a challenge to Nelson in 2012, said he has not requested any earmarks during his nearly two years in the Senate.

LeMieux spokesman Ken Lundberg said that while earmarks comprise "maybe 1 percent of federal spending," they are an "enabler for more government spending."

President Obama professed to share those concerns, saying his biggest regret of his first year in office was signing a budget bill that contained thousands of earmarks. He had campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to end earmarks and increase transparency in the budget process.

Though it's unknown whether Obama would sign another earmark-laden bill this time around, Congress is under a deadline to act. By the end of business on Saturday, the Senate must either pass the $1.1 trillion omnibus bill or approve another continuing resolution to fund the government, Lundberg said.

Conservative Republicans have pledged to block all earmarks on Capitol Hill this year. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has asked that the entire budget bill be read on the Senate floor -- a process that could take days.

In addition to earmarks, DeMint notes that the omnibus spending bill contains more than $1 billion to implement what he calls "the unconstitutional Obamacare law."

Floridians are increasingly fed up with federal budgets that resemble a pork-grinding exercise.

Dale O'Leary of Avon Park calls the larded-up omnibus bill "a pernicious form of bribery."

"The leadership knows that, for example, there are congressmen who are loath to vote against salaries for the military. These congressmen don't want to have to face an opponent in the next election who can scream, 'My opponent voted against paying our troops on the battlefield,'" O'Leary states.

Just as insidious is House Majority Leader Harry Reid's eleventh-hour gambit to push through an earmark-laden spending bill that no one had seen until this week -- essentially daring recalcitrant Republicans to shut the government down. Reid, D-Nev., is eschewing a continuing resolution because earmarks cannot be added to it.

Republicans, especially the tea party-backed freshman class taking office next year, are clamoring for a different way to do business.

Adams says she has joined her GOP colleagues in supporting an earmark moratorium for the 112th Congress, as Republicans did for the 111th Congress.

"She has consistently advocated for an end to the current earmarking practices and an overhauled appropriations process that examines the base budgets of agencies and determines what is working, what isn't, what can be eliminated, and what needs to be maintained," said Adams spokesman Charlie Keller.

"In tight budgetary times, Congress needs to scrutinize every dollar spent and determine if it is the best use of taxpayer funds."

Though Adams defeated her with a call for fiscal conservatism, the outgoing freshman Kosmas is still trying to bring home the bacon.

Kosmas collaborated with Nelson and another lame duck, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, to sponsor an earmark request for a public safety radio system upgrade for Orange County. Price tag: $300,000.

Neither Nelson nor Kosmas responded to messages from Sunshine State News seeking comment. Nelson's Washington, D.C., phone lines were jammed all day Wednesday with constituent calls.

Grayson issued an e-mail statement about funding his earmarks:

This money is in the federal budget. If it does not come to Central Florida, it will be spent somewhere else.I am committed to making sure that we get our fair share.

Among Grayson's individual earmarks are $1 million for "Predisaster Mitigation" for Orange County government and $250,000 for a "From Red 2 Black Financial Literacy Program" for Latino Leadership Inc. in Orlando.

Grayson, who was defeated by Daniel Webster in November after one term, also is seeking $3.65 million for a U.S. Agricultural Research Service facility at Canal Point. He made the request with three other lame-duck Democratic congressmen: Kendrick Meek, Alan Boyd and Ron Klein.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, said, I was very disappointed that Sen. Nelson, after voting for the earmark ban a few weeks ago, reversed his position and requested millions of dollars in earmarks in this massive spending bill.

"If were ever going to get spending under control, we cant just talk the talk -- we have to walk the walk.The American people are sick and tired of out-of-control spending, backroom deals and business-as-usual in Washington, but apparently some in the old guard havent gotten the message.

I hope that President Obama will stand strong in his stated opposition to pork-barrel spending and earmarks, and will veto this bill if it passes.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos also chided Nelson for flip-flopping on earmarks.

The Washington mentality of spending money you dont have continues to disappoint me. Im confused by Sen. Bill Nelsons actions. Just two weeks ago he supported a ban on earmarks but has now loaded up the Senate spending bill with millions of dollars' worth of projects," said the Merritt Island Republican who has indicated an interest in running against Nelson in 2012.

"While some of these projects appear to have some value, the fact remains Washington is spending money it doesnt have. We all know theres a difference between what you want and what you can afford, Haridopolos said.

The Florida Senate president suggested that Washington look to the Sunshine State as an example of fiscal restraint.

Faced with budget cuts next year, we have eliminated special member projects and are focused on providing essential government services to our citizens and spending no more money than we have," Haridopolos said.

Relishing the GOP's chances against Nelson in 2012, Florida Republican Party spokesman Dan Conston said, "Bill Nelson has made a career of fueling out-of-control Washington spending and debt. Floridians arent fooled by his transparent attempts to run from a liberal record and lock-step support for Barack Obamas agenda of spending and debt -- without jobs to show for it."

--

Reach Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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