How Carolinas runin race for earmarks

When it comes to “pork barrel projects,” North Carolina has airports, medical researchers and even a shipwreck museum benefiting from the federal spending.

But it isn't a leader in acquiring the congressionally directed spending known as earmarks.

The state got about $234 million in earmarks in 2008 spending bills – which were jammed with $18 billion in earmarked projects. North Carolina's total ranks 19th compared with other states, but when the state's population is factored in, only eight states got less per capita.

Another $151 million in federal earmarks went to South Carolina, the 24th largest state, which ranked 31st per capita in the amount of money it got.

In the Carolinas delegations, three senators brought home the most “pork,” while the fourth – South Carolina's Jim DeMint – refuses to seek earmarks.

Among Carolinas' House members, Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat who chairs one of the House appropriations subcommittees, was the most productive in acquiring earmarks.

Rep. Robin Hayes, a Concord Republican, was second among House members from North Carolina, sponsoring about $44 million in earmark spending.

Delegation members aren't sure why North Carolina lags in earmarks.

It may primarily stem from the fact that some of the state's largest federal allocations – multimillion dollar military construction projects at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune – were requested by the Bush administration and are not counted as Congressional earmarks in the analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Also, Democrats are in charge of this Congress and get a bigger share of the funding – while about half of North Carolina's House delegation and both senators are in the GOP.

“It's an exercise of Congress' power of the purse, and we should try to make the process manageable and accountable, rather than make these black-and-white judgments about whether this is good or bad or whether we're getting enough,” said Price, who sponsored $90 million in earmarks.

Sen. DeMint, R-S.C., the only Carolinas lawmaker who didn't request any earmarks last year, is at the forefront of a movement to end the so-called “pork” process.

When the Senate rejected his amendment to put a one-year moratorium on earmarks earlier this year, he said the “favor factory” represents the worst of Washington waste.

Still, some lawmakers say they can make more informed decisions about how to spend money in their districts than someone in a federal agency who's never been there.

“As long as (earmarks) are there, I'm here to compete successfully on behalf of my district in order to see that as much of their tax dollars are returned as possible,” said Hayes, who sponsored $44 million in earmarks and publicizes them in news releases.

“We have no problem with saying exactly what the project is, who's asking for it, what will be done with it, and who it benefits.”

Hayes, like other lawmakers, says he gets far more requests than he can accommodate so he has a system for evaluating them. First, he says, he decides whether it's a good project, but he also favors those that provide jobs and national security.

Supporters or not, people inside and outside of Washington understand there's a negative public perception of earmarks, the lobbyists who seek them, and the campaign contributions that sometimes precede or follow earmarks.

Consider the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras. In 2005, the shipwreck museum hired Rick Marks, a former Outer Banks biologist turned lobbyist in Washington.

The museum's board chairman, Danny Couch, won't even call Marks a lobbyist although he's registered as such.

“When you hear ‘lobbyist,' I'm thinking of this high-rolling D.C. type,” Couch said. “He's more like a liaison or a coordinator.”

Both Couch and Marks have contributed money to Rep. Walter Jones, the Republican from Farmville who sponsored the $147,000 earmark the museum got in the 2008 budget.

They both say they like Jones, and weren't trying to buy or reward him for favors.

“It would be naïve to think Danny Couch's $200 contribution is going to turn Washington on its wheels and I'm going to get a museum completed because of it,” Couch said.

Couch gave $500 to Jones' campaign in 2006.

Marks has contributed $2,500 to Jones since 2005 – including $500 about a week after the House passed a bill including the earmark.

“A lot of people will think ‘here's a political contribution, here's an earmark, and there must be some evil connection,'” Marks said.

But he points out that he also donates money to lawmakers he doesn't lobby. He still contributes to Jones even though Marks doesn't actively represent the Graveyard Museum anymore or have any North Carolina clients.

Couch worries people will miss the importance of his museum and the federal money it got. The Graveyard of the Atlantic is preserving maritime heritage, and providing economic development to an area now concerned with beach closings and limits on commercial fishing, he said.

As for Jones, he announced earlier this year that he wouldn't request any earmarks in the 2009 budget.

“It has become evident to me that the baby steps Congress has taken in attempting to fix the earmark process are nowhere close to sufficient,” Jones said in a statement.

“If the people's faith in government is going to be restored, this Congress must change, and earmark reform is a great place to start.”