Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

EDITORIAL >> Highway spoils

President Bush signed the 2005 highway bill, the largest pork barrel in American history, and proclaimed it a great economic stimulus.
The Arkansas Highway Commission, which normally is eager for every highway dollar it can get, considered it a mixed blessing.

Taxpayers, if they understood it, would have an even unkinder description.
Nearly everyone loves road building. Few of us believe our highways are good enough, which is why gasoline tax increases always pass by big margins in the legislature and voters never punish lawmakers for voting for them.
As the president remarked, they do create jobs and stimulate the economy.

President Bush has pretended to be a hawk on deficit spending, but in practice only Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson rival him as a spender.

The highway bill spends $684 billion over five years; last week, Bush ceremoniously signed a bill giving $14.5 billion in subsidies and tax favors to energy companies. It is all money that the government doesn’t have.
We suspect that most Americans are forgiving about the overall highway spending.

A little of the money will reach every precinct whether its needs are great or not. Our little section of the state will not be entirely bereft of largesse, thanks to Reps. Vic Snyder and Marion Berry.
Each of them nailed down a little less than $40 million in what are called “earmarks,” money designated by members of Congress for specific projects in their districts that may or may not be on the list of priorities of state transportation commissions.

A splendid new thoroughfare to the Wal-Mart distribution center or a replacement for the little Tilly Willy Bridge outside Fayetteville are not among the national transportation priorities and the state Highway Commission does not list either as among the urgent needs of the state, but Rep. John Boozman of Springdale got them in the bill as his share of the booty.

That is the system that should offend every American, yet does not bother members of Congress. It is the gold version of the General Improvement Fund enacted by the Arkansas General Assembly, which has been attacked in court, so far successfully, by Jacksonville’s Mike Wilson.

Every member of the legislature is allotted a sum of the taxpayers’ money and designates little projects around their districts that will curry favor with one or another group of constituents. It is nothing more than a campaign slush fund for lawmakers contributed unknowingly by taxpayers.
So are the “earmarked” billions in the federal highway act.

More powerful members of Congress get the big bucks for their little districts. What is left is divided under a system that plays favorites (Republicans ahead of Democrats, seniors ahead of freshmen) but gives at least a little money to everyone to keep them quiet. It works.

The president went to the district of House Speaker Dennis Hastert of DeKalb, Ill., to sign the bill. Part of Hastert’s pork was $207 million for a splendid parkway across the rural counties in his district. Hastert and two big Republican lawmakers from districts without big transportation needs got $2.3 billion in “earmarked” projects.
That is more than all the state of Arkansas will get for all its federal highway aid, both pet earmarked projects and regular matching aid, for the next five years. Not even Vic Snyder would say that was unfair.

The Arkansas Highway Commission was pleased that the state will get a nice increase in aid the new five years although the commissioners thought it would be far better if the earmarks were eliminated and all the money came directly to the state to meet its most urgent needs.
The distortions were no more obvious than in California where the Republican Ways and Means Committee chairman, Bill Thomas, got money for a marginal road project that amounted to more than $1,000 a resident, while Los Angeles with a daily traffic gridlock matched few places in the world, got less than $60 a person.

Almost from the beginning of the republic, public works have furnished political spoils, but the projects were always accorded some importance to the country, or to the state.

When a boulevard to Wal-Mart is a strategic national need or sidewalks in Bigelow are a vital state concern you know that pretense is no longer necessary.

The public interest will not get in the way of politics.