Kentucky's Rogers steers funds to institute he helped found

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 14, 2008 

WASHINGTON - Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, in his final year as the Republicans' ranking member on the powerful House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, tucked $11 million into the federal budget for a non-profit institute he helped create.

The National Institute for Hometown Security, an organization in Somerset, Ky., that Rogers has described as providing "a platform to advance homeland security research and development," will work with the Department of Homeland Security to use the money to help fund future high-tech projects.

Taxpayer advocacy groups call the funding a boondoggle, saying this is yet another example of Rogers using his political clout to channel millions in federal homeland security funds into pet projects for a rural stretch of Kentucky dubbed "Silicon Holler."

Rogers expertise in the practice of "earmarking" -- inserting funds for local projects into federal spending measures -- has earned him criticism from budget watchdog groups and media outlets, including the Lexington Herald-Leader. In a series examining the issue the newspaper dubbed Rogers the "Prince of Pork."

"Hal Rogers has been on our radar screen for a while now," said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a government spending watchdog group.

Williams questions the purpose of organizations like the National Institute for Hometown Security and says the institute deserves scrutiny.

"We've noticed a trend of these consortiums and homeland security funds," he said. "Lawmakers fund a consortium that comes up with homeland security technology. It seems like a fancy way to do research under the guise of national security. It's not going to improve the daily lives of all the people in the district."

Rogers disagrees. He points to such private-public partnerships as a research project headed by the University of Kentucky and FlashScan3D in Dallas to develop three-dimensional fingerprinting technology as proof of the importance of "commercializing" security research. The hope is that government agencies and private-sector companies can use the technology to track potential terrorists.

"It's not science for science sake," said Rogers' spokesman, Jim Pettit. "It takes a commercialization approach" to get technological advances out of the science labs and into the places where it is needed most.

Funding for Rogers' projects represent a fraction of the more than $400 million in homeland security earmarks in this year's budget. But the practice is still an especially contentious topic in Washington, a city that, along with New York, was the target of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After those attacks, the Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security. For years, members of Congress operated under a gentleman's agreement not to earmark that agency's spending bills. But times have changed, and while overall the practice of earmarking is down and more transparent under the Democrat-controlled Congress, the number of local projects folded into homeland security spending measures has skyrocketed, according to analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based group that monitors government spending.

One of the most troubling impacts of earmarking homeland security spending measures can be found in the dwindling pot of money available to a Federal Emergency Management Agency pre-disaster mitigation program. The program is designed to "save lives and reduce property damage," said Steve Ellis, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Traditionally, the FEMA program awards money to cities through competitive, merit-based grants, and the funds are used to help towns rebound from tornado or storm damage or to pre-plan for flooding problems. However, Rogers and other powerful members of the House Appropriations Committee, party leaders on both sides of the aisle and politically vulnerable freshmen were able to cut ahead of other needy communities and funnel federal homeland security funds designed to address their own districts' needs.

"This is a program that has an established criteria and an award process that is supposed to help communities become less exposed to a future disaster," Ellis said.

Last year, FEMA's pre-disaster mitigation program received $100 million to fund competitively awarded projects. This year, after lawmakers earmarked nearly half of the program's budget, many of the nation's cities may be forced to compete for $62 million in program funds.

Kentucky lawmakers netted $5.4 million in program funds.

The projects include:

  • -- $2.65 million for the city of Cumberland, which sits squarely in Rogers' district, to replace bridges that are consistently washed out during floods. Overall, Rogers received $4 million in program funds, the largest amount of any lawmaker in the delegation.
  • -- The town of Martin received $1.35 million to continue work to relocate the town to higher ground.
  • -- The University of Kentucky's Department of Civil Engineering received $200,000 for a hydrology study of Wolf Creek dam to help find ways to stabilize water levels at Lake Cumberland.
  • -- Rep. John Yarmuth netted $200,000 to help Louisville officials better measure stream and river level information in areas facing chronic flooding.
  • -- Last month, Rep. Geoff Davis presented local officials in his district with a $500,000 check to help prevent future disasters, such as droughts or floods, by increasing the size of the Lake Williamstown and providing long-term water solutions for the region.

"FEMA's pre-disaster mitigation efforts are fundamental to protecting homeowners and businesses in our region from the destruction of flooding," Rogers said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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