Discounted pork gets bought quickly“We need a Congress that can distinguish between projects of national importance and of local or regional importance, and that will tell us that a local project is “a good project” about the same time we say we’re willing to tax ourselves, locally, regionally, or statewide, to pay for it.”
It’s hard to imagine a new road project in the Duluth area that is more deserving than the Kirkus Street extension, which includes a bridge over the railroad tracks in Proctor. When asked about the project, City Administrator James Rohweder gives a convincing list of safety, convenience, and development issues that the project will address. (The Budgeteer ran two stories about the Kirkus Street extension: “Stuck at a train in Proctor? Not for long...” July 17, page B1 and “Proctor honors Oberstar’s legacy of leadership” August 28, front page.)
Rohweder said the roadway will be built because former Congressman Jim Oberstar man-aged to direct more than $4 million to the project, which amounts to 80 percent of the funding for the road and bridge.
In other words, the Kirkus Street extension is an example of a federal earmark, otherwise known as pork.
When asked why a road of such importance couldn’t have been funded locally, Rohweder says “Because we couldn’t afford it,” and points out that if the City had built the road itself, much of the cost would have been assessed to property owners along the road and, for a $5 million project, that cost would have been prohibitive.
Last week, Virgil Swing took aim at what he characterized as the failure of government officials to set spending priorities, listing a host of projects, including Duluth’s new airport terminal, the potential Northern Lights Express Train, and a potential $700 million bridge over the St. Croix River at Stillwater as examples.
Representative Chip Cravaack, who voted for a moratorium on earmarks in Congress, originally questioned that airport terminal, although it didn’t take him long to get on board and call it “a good project.”
Of course, the airport terminal isn’t officially pork anyway. Brian Ryks, of the Duluth Airport, maintains that “there haven’t been earmarks in eight years” for the project, and states that the terminal was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration on its merits.
Such an approval process is attractive. We can imagine some Washington functionary in a dimly lit cubicle poring over competing airport projects, or bridges, or train lines, and impartially allocating money based on merit.
While bureaucrats may be pretty good at prioritizing such things as airport projects, they can’t determine how big the overall pot of money will be, and what projects are eligible for funding. That’s Congress’ job, and to answer those questions Congress goes to entities like Proctor or Duluth or Minnesota and effectively says, “If we give you 80 percent of the money, and you have to pay only 20 percent, what would you like to buy?”
Well, with an offer like that I’d take an addition to my house, a new garage, a redone bathroom, and a trip to France, and cities and states can come up with long lists of stuff they really, really need also, as long as they pay only 20 percent.
And so there is no way that projects such as Kirkus Street can be prioritized. Instead, there’s an infinity of good projects when they’re on discount, and we don’t need congressmen like Cravaack to tell us they’re “good.” Instead, we need a Congress that can distinguish between projects of national importance and of local or regional importance, and that will tell us that a local project is “a good project” about the same time we say we’re willing to tax our-selves, locally, regionally, or statewide, to pay for it.
That reasoning goes for Swing’s St. Croix Bridge, which is of no national importance. It holds for the Northern Lights Express (unless it’s part of a much larger system of regional rail). It holds for a host of local projects that now are funded only by begging from the feds. It even goes for much federal disaster aid.
Such reasoning does not apply to such things as the main arteries of the interstate transportation system or the airport terminal project, which is part of a national system and largely paid for by airfare taxes.
It doesn’t apply to locks on the Great Lakes, or mandates such as the Clean Air Act. All of those are issues that go far beyond state lines.
No matter how important Kirkus Street may be, the only way to accurately determine if it’s truly a good way to spend our money, to prioritize, is to ask us if we’ll find a way to pay for it ourselves. With the feds contributing 80 percent, that decision can never be properly made.
Budgeteer columnist Pete Langr writes every other week in the Budgeteer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.