With earmarks banned, California must finagle transportation bill

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2012 

WASHINGTON — California lawmakers and lobbyists must find new ways to steer federal transportation dollars to the state.

Earmarks are out, in the massive House and Senate transportation bills moving this week. Once famed for their pork, the transportation bills are now shorn of locally targeted funding. That means it's time to get creative.

"California is a donor state. We give more in taxes than we get back, and earmarks have been one way we try to compensate," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Monday, "so we will have to work this legislation."

On Tuesday, the House unveils its latest, long-awaited transportation package. Separately, several Senate committees will be marking up a different version this week.

The bills expose sharp divisions. The House wants a five-year bill. The Senate proposes two years. Funding totals and funding sources differ. The House bill funds projects, in part, by expanding domestic energy production. The Senate bill does not.

Lawmakers seeking to resolve the many differences will almost certainly need another extension — their eighth — before the current bill expires March 31.

"It's a daunting task," acknowledged Len Simon, a lobbyist who represents the cities of Rancho Cordova and Fresno, but "if people put their minds to it, it can happen."

The House and Senate do agree on omitting the earmarks that have made the last several transportation bills both popular and, ultimately, controversial. One earmark in particular, Alaska's so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" in the 2005 transportation bill, made other earmarks politically toxic.

This year's no-earmark pledge means, for instance, that Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California cannot use her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to explicitly aid home-state projects. Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento noted that "it is unclear what the House transportation bill will look like in light of the earmark ban."

Instead, California lobbyists and lawmakers can try to bulk up programs where the state might fare well either through grant competition or through formula-driven funding. The bills also can emphasize general programs important in the state.

"I think California is poised to get its fair share, or more than its fair share," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Monday. "I think we're in better shape than years past."

Denham inserted in the House bill a provision easing transportation requirements governing California cattle ranchers. More broadly, he predicted the emphasis on block grants will "take most of the politics out of the process," as the California Transportation Commission will set statewide priorities.

The 599-page Senate bill includes funding for air quality and freight rail programs that, while not mentioning California specifically, are likely to pump money into the state. Thirty-eight of the state's 58 counties, including much of the Central Valley, are currently designated as "non attainment" for air quality standards. This potentially qualifies them for air-quality project funding under the Senate bill.

Both bills also would significantly boost the existing Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act credit program, which treats California well. The existing program, for instance, has provided low-interest loans to aid construction of the South Bay Expressway toll road in San Diego County and the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco.

The Senate and House bills boost this program to $1 billion a year, up from the current $122 million.

All told, the Senate bill approved by Boxer's committee last November authorizes about $85 billion over two years. California would likely claim an estimated 10 percent of the total, which is about par with current funding levels.

"We intend to get this done," Boxer said at a news conference last Friday, adding that "we have made great progress."

The earmark absence is markedly different from the last transportation bill, whose 6,371 earmarks included hundreds for California projects.

All told, the 2005 bill itemized nearly $2.5 billion for California projects identified as "high priority," according to the California Department of Transportation. California also secured an additional $1.3 billion in itemized "transit" earmarks, such as buses for Yosemite National Park.

The 2005 bill also epitomized the power of individual lawmakers to work their will. The then-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, secured an astonishing $726 million for Kern County projects, more than was delivered to Los Angeles and San Francisco counties combined.

Eliminating earmarks also complicates the job of lobbyists hired to aid cities and counties. The Sacramento Regional Transit District, for instance, paid its D.C. lobbyists $200,000 last year, records show; at least 11 other California-based transit agencies and a number of individual counties likewise paid lobbyists to work on the transportation bill last year, records show.

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