Earmarks a central theme in Washington state's U.S. Senate race

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 15, 2010 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is facing Republican challengers Dino Rossi and Clint Didier in Washington's upcoming "top two" primary election.

WASHINGTON — As he runs for the U.S. Senate from Washington state, Republican Dino Rossi loudly criticizes his opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, for earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars for the state in federal spending bills.

Yet while he's calling for an outright ban on them now, Rossi was no stranger to Olympia's version of earmarks — or, as lawmakers euphemistically call them, "locally targeted investments" — during his two terms in the state Senate.

They were known as "bacon bits," little pieces of pork for their districts that even Rossi lobbied influential committee chairmen to include in the state budget.

State Sen. Darlene Fairley, a Democrat, recalls that 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 as well, Rossi has made earmarks a central theme in the Washington state U.S. Senate race, which polls find is tight. At first glance, the battle lines are clear.

Over the past two years alone, Murray has secured more than $500 million in earmarks for her state. They've covered everything from DNA testing kits in rape cases to increased security along the Canadian border. One congressional watchdog group has called her the "queen of pork."

Murray makes no apologies. She said that's 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 about half of 1 percent of the federal budget — helps to balloon the federal deficit.

"It is bankrupting America," he said.

However, in Olympia, as the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, 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.

Rossi also sounded a little like Murray when he described the money he'd secured.

"That wouldn't have happened if I didn't make it happen," Rossi was quoted by the Northwest Asian Weekly as saying about $1.5 million he secured for the Wing Luke Asian museum in Seattle.

Rossi said lawmakers' requests were handled differently in Olympia from the way they were in Washington, D.C., where they were added to bills in the "dark of night" without being vetted thoroughly.

"We don't have earmarks in Olympia," Rossi said.

As the chairman of the state House Capital Budget Committee, Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee 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."

Dunshee defended the practice. "It is legislators being responsive to the needs of their districts," he said.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, earmarks didn't even show up among the most important issues in this fall's election in a Washington Poll that the University of Washington released in May. More than 60 percent of those polled said jobs and the economy was the top issue, followed by health care, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taxes and education.

Another recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who brought government projects and money to their home districts.

Rossi said a larger issue was 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."

Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, said banning earmarks was a hard sell for Rossi because voters liked it when lawmakers brought 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."

Murray, meanwhile, said no one knew the needs of a state better than the elected officials who represented it. By way of example, Murray said that when she was pursuing additional funding for ferries, a federal bureaucrat she spoke with didn't know there were ferries in Washington state, which has the largest ferry system in the country.

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