Earmark ban no deterrent to local California leaders

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2012 

WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley officials this week are pursuing federal dollars, a Capitol Hill game that's both plentiful and elusive.

In a $3.8 trillion federal budget, money abounds. But with earmarks verboten, deficits high and competition stiff, Valley representatives acknowledge it's harder than ever to bring home specific local funding for their projects in California.

"Three or four years ago, earmarks were still very much in place," Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea said Monday, observing the change in federal budgeting. "Now, it's a little bit more like Jell-O."

Nonetheless, Perea has joined 19 other Fresno County business, academic and political leaders in this week's three-and-a-half day lobbying venture on behalf of transportation and other projects. Separately, a four-member delegation from the Merced County city of Livingston also is on the prowl.

Billed under the unifying "One Voice" banner, the Fresno County wish list ranges from a transportation bill that might help improve State Route 99 to assistance with controlling air pollution and streamlining environmental reviews for roadwork.

Instead of local line items, this year's wish list emphasizes broader programs — such as "high priority corridors" and "non-attainment air quality areas" — that happen to apply to the San Joaquin Valley. State Route 99, for instance, already is a designated "high priority corridor," so any overall program boost would eventually trickle down to California.

"Even though earmarks are gone, there are still billions of dollars available," noted Melissa Garza, associate regional planner for the Fresno Council of Governments.

Underscoring the potential regional competition, four representatives from Livingston are separately making the rounds this week in their own search for federal assistance.

"We want to hit up some congressmen," Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza said Monday.

Federal grants, too, are part of the Livingston delegation's agenda, with city officials targeting a variety of potential opportunities, including funding, to help nurture a downtown cultural arts district.

The cross-country trips are either a gamble or an investment.

Livingston City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez estimated his city is spending about $5,000 on the Washington, D.C., trip that also includes Mayor Pro Tem Margarita Aguilar and city grant-writer James Gordon. The costs of the Fresno County trip are spread among participating cities, corporate sponsors such as Granville Homes and the Fresno Council of Governments.

Tighter budgets have shrunk the Fresno County lobbying trip, which in past years had grown to upwards of 40 participants. Still, the participants maintain that the combination of briefings and one-on-one meetings can pay big dividends down the road.

"Some of the times you talk to people on the phone, and they may recognize your voice, but they don't know you personally," said Ramirez, who formerly made the D.C. lobbying trips while serving as Firebaugh's city manager. "Now, they'll have a name and a face."

The visits also provide real-time intelligence, or at least seasoned guesstimates.

On Monday, for instance, Perea said a representative of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, predicted that the long-stalled transportation bill is likely to get another 18-month extension rather than a complete rewrite. That could complicate or postpone Fresno County's efforts to secure helpful legislative language in a new transportation bill.

In turn, the Livingston and Fresno County delegations are among the first to arrive in this year's lobbying season; many others are on the way.

A broader Merced County delegation will arrive in April, as will a delegation from San Joaquin County.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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