Senators: Obama budget tough on SD projectsSouth Dakota’s U.S. senators agreed Wednesday that President Obama’s newly proposed budget could impede progress on two major projects in the state, but they disagreed on the role earmarks should play in funding the projects.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
South Dakota’s U.S. senators agreed Wednesday that President Obama’s newly proposed budget could impede progress on two major projects in the state, but they disagreed on the role earmarks should play in funding the projects.
The term “earmark” describes the process by which lawmakers insert funding for home-state projects into federal legislation. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, said the recently adopted twoyear moratorium on earmarks will halt additional funds from flowing to South Dakota projects such as the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System and the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory.
The earmark moratorium is a mistake, Johnson said.
“As I’ve said before and will say again, this is a clear example of why I believe earmarks are an important part of the budgeting process in Congress.
“Earmarks didn’t cost the government any additional money, but they did direct funds toward important projects like Lewis and Clark.”
Sen. John Thune, a Republican, acknowledged that some worthy projects are suffering because of the bad reputation earned by wasteful earmarks. But he said neither the Lewis and Clark project nor the underground lab should have to depend on earmarks, because the federal government has already “made commitments” to both projects in the form of past funding.
“You shouldn’t need to earmark these things,” Thune said. “They should be things the administration should be committed to completing.”
Instead of completing the projects, Thune alleged that officials in the Obama administration “want to go off on these spending sprees on a whole bunch of their priorities,” such as spending $53 billion on a national high-speed rail project.
Johnson and Thune made their comments from Washington during separate conference calls with reporters. Other topics were discussed, but the president’s budget proposal and its potential impact on South Dakota were the dominant subjects.
Johnson said the president’s budget would cut funding for the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System to $493,000, an amount that would pay administrative costs but would not support further construction.
The project, which has been under construction since 2003, seeks to deliver Missouri River water to 300,000 people in southeast South Dakota, southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa.
The chances of securing additional funding for the Lewis and Clark project are “grim,” Johnson said. Thune said it’s possible some funding could still be shifted to the project, and both senators pledged to work toward that end.
Meanwhile, oversight of the underground lab project in the former Homestake mine in the Black Hills has been moved from the National Science Foundation to the Department of Energy, the senators said. Thune said “it’s become pretty clear the last several months that the NSF, for whatever reason — and we’re still trying to get to the bottom of it — was losing interest in this.”
The goal of the project is to provide the world’s largest and deepest underground laboratory for experiments in physics and other disciplines. Underground labs shield experiments from the noise of cosmic radiation.
Johnson said the project will face “a cut” but did not specify how much. Thune said funding for the project is eliminated in the proposed National Science Foundation budget, but the Department of Energy has included $15 million for it. That’s less than the $30 million of “bridge financing” that is needed, Thune said, to keep the project on track.
Thune said the underground lab has not been dependent on earmarks since one of about $10 million was awarded roughly a decade ago, and he will continue to work for funding through other channels.
Johnson indicated there is no chance of securing additional funding for the underground lab without earmarks.
“Due to the earmark moratorium by Republicans, we will not be able to direct additional funds to the project during the next two years,” Johnson said.
Republicans are not the only party caucus to pledge a two-year moratorium on earmarks. Democrats in both houses of Congress have also agreed to the moratorium, leaving Johnson in an increasingly lonely position.
Earmarks actually account for less than 1 percent of total federal spending, but some earmarks have been widely criticized as wasteful. Perhaps the most famous example was the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere,” a failed $400 million proposal to link a small town in Alaska with a sparsely populated island.
Thune said abuses of the earmark system have contaminated the process and made a moratorium the wise course of action.
“Credible projects are paying the price because of the ludicrous ones over the years that have gotten the attention,” he said. “It’s completely eroded the confidence of the American people that their tax dollars are being used in a responsible way.”
Johnson has said the earmark moratorium will do nothing to solve the country’s financial problems and will only shift responsibility for funding decisions from Congress to “nameless, faceless bureaucrats” who care nothing about projects important to South Dakota.