Politics & Government

Merced County officials lobby Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON -- Merced County officials are making a well-worn Capitol Hill pilgrimage, wish list in hand.

For several months, other San Joaquin Valley delegations armed with slogans, brochures and well-honed pitches have been swarming congressional offices. The goal: part of the federal budget pie. This week, Merced County seeks its slice.

"We have issues that are worse than Appalachia," Atwater City Councilman J. Nelson Crabb said Wednesday, "so we're trying to get the same priority as Appalachia got 40 years ago."

With a 27-person contingent, the Merced County Association of Governments delegation is roughly average size for the genre. It is larger than Stanislaus County's 17-member group that visited earlier this year. It is far smaller than the mind-boggling 350-member delegation sent by Sacramento County.

All of the delegations, though, share some common traits.

Lots of meetings fill the days. Wednesday marked the third and final day for this year's visit, with sessions ranging from a morning get-together with Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, to an afternoon discussion of transportation in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's D.C. office.

Merced County's delegation, like others, includes a mix of city and county officials along with real estate agents and business leaders. Lobbyists usually help set schedules and open doors. For the Merced County Association of Governments, this work was handled by Van Skoyoc Associates, which was paid $60,000 last year.

It's also customary for counties, including Merced County, to adopt the "One Voice" slogan, or something close to it. This reflects the rallying around certain select projects, and a commitment to stick together and not freelance.

"We're stressing in all of our meetings that we're in this together," Gustine City Councilman Joe Oliveira said. "This is one for all and all for one."

Merced County officials identified 10 projects worthy of federal support this year. They include:

-- $5 million to complete engineering and design work on realigning Highway 152 around the city of Los Banos. The city has been seeking assistance for the highway rerouting for some 40 years, with the project's total estimated costs now upward of $220 million.

-- $4 million to purchase the rights-of-way needed to build a new campus parkway connecting Highway 99 to Yosemite Avenue, serving developments including the University of California at Merced.

-- $420,000 to initiate a four-week environmental science seminar for high school students. The program would expand throughout the county a seminar that previously has been confined to Atwater.

Following standard practice, the Merced County projects are spelled out in colorful packets. All told, the specific funding requests total $12.8 million dollars. In addition, officials are seeking other kinds of federal help. This includes, for instance, designation of Merced County as a "health professional shortage area," which would help in recruiting doctors.

"We don't have all the Rolls Royces and beach homes," Crabb said, contrasting Merced County with some East Coast expectations for the California lifestyle.

This year marks the fourth time the Merced County Association of Governments has run a "One Voice" visit, and it has evolved over time. Stiffer congressional ethics rules, for instance, have complicated the evening receptions that once were common. Instead, the Merced County visitors this year brought modest gift bags that included pistachios, almonds and some yo-yos made of recycled material.

"This is like a lottery ticket," Crabb said of the D.C. visit. "If you don't buy it, you don't have a chance of winning."