WASHINGTON — Millions of dollars in civic projects across North Carolina could be endangered next year if Congress curtails a long-running practice that has come to symbolize runaway spending in Washington.
Republicans, who will control the House of Representatives come January, decided last week that they will ban earmarks, the congressionally directed bundles of dollars sent to benefit specific projects back home.
The vote came two weeks after midterm elections brought more than 60 new, tea-party-backed GOP freshmen to the House, all bearing the strong message from voters that Congress needs to cut spending. Senate Republicans also voted to ban earmarks.
But some Republicans join many Democrats and local government officials who rely on the earmarks in saying that the earmarks don't amount to much in the overall federal budget - and that the ban could have less effect than intended.
Rep.-elect Renee Ellmers of North Carolina said the litmus test will involve how many exceptions the House carves out - for transportation projects, for example, or for defense earmarks.
"We're saying this is what we've heard from the American people," said Ellmers, a Dunn Republican. "But will we be able to hold to this? Because this is what is going to determine the seriousness."
Money flowing to North Carolina through earmarks already had been ebbing. The state ranks 43rd in the current fiscal year with $144 million in earmarks, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, an advocacy group in Washington. That was down from $228 million - a rank of 34th - in 2009.
North Carolina is home to some of the perceived boondoggles in the earmarking process. Sen. John McCain derisively tweeted "How does one manage a beaver?" from the Senate floor in 2009 - a cut on a $650,000 project to keep the critters' dams from harming water culverts in North Carolina and Mississippi. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, co-sponsored that one.
And critics still recall earmarks for the now-defunct Sparta teapot museum, which received a $500,000 allocation sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx and Sen. Richard Burr, both Republicans.
Gov. Bev Perdue has a team permanently ensconced in Washington, in part to follow earmarks. But spokesman Mark Johnson declined this week to speculate about next year's ban, saying Perdue is paying closer attention to the $3.5 billion shortfall in the state budget.
Instead, the office has let local governments and universities work their own earmark priorities.
Terri Lomax, vice chancellor for research and innovation at N.C. State University, said the school's earmarks go toward research that falls between the cracks of federal grant programs.
N.C. State has amassed $13 million in proposed earmarks in the fiscal year 2011 appropriations bills, which have not passed, compared with an overall federal research portfolio of $280 million.
Earmarks pay for research on food and milk safety, textile development, cybersecurity and a prosthetic being developed for injured troops.
"It's beyond where the [National Institutes of Health] takes research, and not yet where the [Department of Defense] is," Lomax said. "If the ban goes through, we wouldn't have a way to fund the project."
Just outside Charlotte, Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg said he'll shift his lobbying focus from Congress to federal agencies. "We would just have to revise our strategy," Legg said. "This won't make us quit trying to find funding from Washington. That's the American way. We should have the right to petition our government to bring back dollars for local efforts."
Critics of earmarking have for years maintained that the process erodes public confidence in federal spending by allowing powerful lawmakers - and not need or merit - to determine how money is spent.
Although earmarks are only about 1 percent of federal spending and have been under fire for half the decade, tea-party-affiliated candidates seized on them this election season as a symbol of out-of-control federal spending.
The effort to rein them in began earlier this year when House Democrats decided to ban earmarks to for-profit companies. Republicans responded with a one-year ban on earmarks in appropriations bills. They voted this week to continue that ban.
It's unclear, though, just what the ban means for next year because Republicans have not fully defined it.
"Right now, it's a sound bite in search of substance," said Rep. Brad Miller, a Raleigh Democrat who sponsored $26.7 million in earmarks last year.
"They know people don't like earmarks because it sounds like wasteful spending," Miller said. But one member's pork spending might be another's necessary infrastructure project, he said.
That's the issue that will face the House next year, when it plans to take up a massive transportation authorization bill that traditionally includes earmarks for just about every member of Congress. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the doyenne of the tea party movement, told her hometown paper that she might see allowing local transportation-related projects to get through.
That could mean approval for $1.5 million in improvements to Wake County's 540 outer loop, or $500,000 for traffic studies in high-speed rail corridors in Durham and Wake, or $650,000 for improvements to U.S. 401 in Harnett, Cumberland and Wake counties.
Ellmers said she would have to look at each proposal closely before deciding whether it merits support despite an earmark ban.
"That's the hard question," she said.
"What exactly are these projects? Are they really needed? And is it going to benefit the people of North Carolina? If it's going to be a good expenditure of taxpayer money, I will go to bat for it."
Miller said a ban would be more likely to hurt small communities such as Creedmoor and Roxboro in his district, where towns don't have the staff to write federal grant applications.
Price, the state's only Appropriations Committee member, said he fears earmarks will still make it into legislation but with less transparency than the open-book method developed by Democrats in the past four years.
That approach required all members to submit public statements of their appropriations earmarks and to vow that they had no personal conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile, he said, Congress would be abdicating its responsibility if it gave the executive branch the power to make all spending decisions. For the most part, he said, earmarked appropriations already exist in the federal budget.
"The question is, how is it going to be directed?" Price said. "It's a central congressional power, the power of the purse."
Erika Bolstad and Lesley Clark of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.