At a time when his colleagues in Congress and rivals in the U.S. Senate race are spurning federal spending on local projects, Rep. Kendrick Meek is asking House budget writers for nearly $238 million on so-called earmarks.
Meek's requests — posted on his website by Monday as required by the House — range from $100,000 for "teaching healthy lifestyle choices to children" through the Haitian American Alliance Youth Foundation to $37 million for dredging Miami Harbor so it can accommodate larger vessels.
His Republican Senate rivals have attacked earmark spending as a symptom of Washington overspending: Gov. Charlie Crist vows not to seek earmarks if he is elected to the Senate and his primary rival, Marco Rubio, has the support of a national critic of earmarks -- though Rubio backed local projects as a state legislator.
Meek suggests his Senate rivals would react differently if they were members of Congress, who every spring are besieged by a parade of local governments, schools and charities looking for a slice of the federal budget.
"Having some conversations with local government officials may very much change their minds," Meek suggested of Crist and Rubio. "I don't look it as being a fiscal conservative if you are willing to take away your ability as an elected official to assist a local community in its needs."
Meek did not put in any requests for private companies, saying he agreed with House leaders who decided earlier this month to ban earmarks that benefit for-profit businesses. But he has sought such spending in the past. Just last year, he asked for $19 million for five for-profits, including $6.7 million for a North Miami Beach company whose chief executive officer and Washington lobbyist have contributed at least $3,700 to Meek's campaign and political action committee.
Such private pet projects have drawn scrutiny from critics who see them as an attempt to skirt competitive bidding by awarding contracts to particular providers.
Meek said he was unaware of the contributions from Aqua Sciences CEO Abe Sher or lobbyist Doug Davenport, but added that contributions had "never affected my reasoning for putting in a request."
Meek drew criticism in 2006 for pushing a $4 million earmark for the failed Poinciana Industrial Park. The project was scrapped amid questionable spending by its developer and construction delays, but Meek -- whose mother, Carrie Meek was paid at least $40,000 in consulting fees for the project -- said his intent was to spur job creation in a blighted area of his district.
To be sure, the vast majority of Meek's requests are for local governments: buses for Miami-Dade and Broward; new sewer lines for cities; research projects at Florida schools like Barry University, FIU and Meek's alma mater, Florida A&M University; and aid for nonprofits like Camillus House, the United Way and Best Buddies Florida. This year's requests include $11.5 million to gird Jackson Memorial to withstand a Category 4 hurricane and $12.5 million to fight beach erosion in Miami-Dade County. As is the congressional delegation's practice, some of the projects are co-sponsored by other South Florida members.
In an interview last week, Meek made no apologies for seeking federal spending for local projects, arguing that it's part of his job.
"People are paying federal taxes down in Florida and they deserve some return on those taxes," he said. "People send us here to D.C. to bring resources back to the local community. To say that I'm not going to fight for federal funding to assist my local community goes against one of the main reasons the people of this state send us up here."
Though critics blame earmarks for bloating the federal budget, Meek points out that spending on earmarks accounts for less than 2 percent of the discretionary budget.
"It's a good talking point, but when you see the cities that line up outside of the door and the [nonprofits] and educational institutions . . . I'm not going to say, 'Sorry, I can't help you,' " he said.
Members rarely get but a fraction of what they ask for. Meek, for example, asked for more than $260 million last year and pulled down $5.5 million in individual earmarks. He pulled down a total of $34 million in earmarks that he and other members of the South Florida delegation requested.
His fellow Democrat, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has asked for more than $470 million -- including the Miami Harbor dredging at $37 million. Last year, she secured $10 million in individual earmarks and $46 million in shared earmarks. Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pulled in $18 million last year, and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart each landed more than $22 million in shared earmarks, according to a database compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that opposes much of the earmarked spending.
After House Democrats barred private earmarks, House Republicans responded by deciding to give up earmark requests entirely for a year. But the issue revealed a split among the GOP in the Senate, where a similar moratorium sponsored by South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint -- who has endorsed Rubio -- failed, 68-29. Florida Sen. George LeMieux, Crist's appointee for the Senate seat, sided with DeMint and voted for the ban.
Since taking control of the House in 2006, Democrats have sought to reduce the amount of earmarks and improve transparency by requiring lawmakers to reveal the once-secret requests. Meek had resisted greater disclosure: he and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart were the only South Florida House members who in the past refused The Miami Herald's annual call for earmark requests. Meek has complied with the new rules that since 2009 require House members to post their requests on their website.
Meek said he resisted The Miami Herald's request in past years because he didn't want to put himself at a competitive disadvantage.
"We wanted to make sure we were all playing by the same rules," he said. "We didn't want to hurt our ability to be able to bring dollars back home."