Can’t hurt to ask: Arizona lawmakers raise earmark requests by $194 million

Transportation projects were among the biggest requests by members of Arizona’s congressional delegation for fiscal 2023, the second year Congress has allowed “community project funding” – or earmarks – after a 10-year hiatus. But requests covered the gamut, from military construction to medical equipment to counseling programs. (File photo by Jenna Miller/ Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Add another item to the long list of things that Republican and Democratic members of Arizona’s congressional delegation disagree on: earmarks.

For a second straight year, Republicans refrained from requesting any funding for local projects, while Democrats this year raised their requests by more than $194.5 million, a 43% increase over last year, when earmarks were restored after a decade-long hiatus.

The increase was sharpest in the House, where Arizona lawmakers asked for $148.1 million, more than three times the $45.2 million in “community project funding” they sought last year. The House also raised the number of projects members could request, from 10 last year to 15 this year.

The bulk of the requests came, not surprisingly, from the state’s senators, who are not limited in the number of “congressionally directed spending requests” and who seek projects statewide: Sen. Mark Kelly’s requests went from $210.7 million last year to $254.6 million this year, while Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s requests rose from $192.1 million to $239.5 million in the same period. Their requests appeared to be about in the middle of the pack for the Senate.

Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, who asked for a relatively modest $26.6 million this year in local project funding, defends the program as needed and targeted.

“For many decades, Arizona hasn’t received its fair share of federal funds – our tax dollars have gone to fund projects in other states,” Stanton said in an emailed statement. “That’s unacceptable.”

But critics say the program to fund congressionally directed, local projects is little more than wasteful “pork-barrel spending” on projects that would not merit funding otherwise, criticism that led earmarks to be put on hold for more than a decade.

“You can put lipstick on a pig, but … I know that’s a cliché, but the point is that an earmark is still an earmark,” said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “No matter how it’s defined, it means that members of Congress are obtaining funds outside of the regular appropriations process.”

Schatz noted that former Arizona Sen. John McCain was one of the driving forces behind a 2011 move to ban earmarks, which McCain called “wasteful pork-barrel spending” and a “gateway drug to corruption and overspending.”

But Congress lifted that ban last year, with new safeguards against past abuses. Lawmakers have to report every request, show need and community support for it, and prove that neither they nor any family members will benefit from the funding. House members are limited in the number of projects they can request – senators are not – but the total number of earmarks approved cannot account for more than 1% of the budget’s discretionary spending.

Arizona’s five House Democrats asked for $148.1 million to fund 75 projects this year, while the state’s two Democratic senators each requested 106 projects, totaling $494.1 million. There is some duplication in the requests: Kelly, Sinema and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Tucson, all sought millions to fund a gate and other projects at Morris Air National Guard Base, for example.

For the second year in a row, Kirkpatrick led the state’s House delegation with a total request for $38.5 million, well above the median House request of $27.8 million.

Not all of the requested earmarks are construction projects. Lawmakers are also seeking program funding and money for equipment needs for local agencies. (File photo by Jenna Miller/ Cronkite News)

“We were not trying to be like, ‘Oh, we’re only going to pick the projects that have the most money.’ That’s not how we thought,” said Abigail O’Brien, Kirkpatrick’s chief of staff. “We really tried to prioritize the projects that made the most sense and could do the most good.”

Kirkpatrick was followed by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, whose $37.1 million request ranked 92nd among the 345 House members who put in requests. Other Arizona Democrats were Reps. Tom O’Halleran of Sedona, whose $31.5 million request put him in 139th place; Stanton, whose $26.6 million was 189th; and Rep. Raul Grijalva of Tucson, whose $14.4 million request was 319th. Kirkpatrick was in 83rd place.

O’Brien said one reason for the increased number of requests this year is that lawmakers were more familiar and knowledgeable about the process than last year.

“There is a desire to make those community project funding dollars stretch as far as they can this year,” she said.

The largest single requests in Arizona came from Sinema and Kelly, who both asked for $28.7 million for a new wastewater treatment plant at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma and $20 million for a munitions storage complex at Morris ANG. Their total number of requests was less than half the Senate average of about 220, and their lists fell well shy of heavyweights like Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who asked for $663.8 million in projects or Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who sought $509.4 million.

Requests from Arizona House members ranged from the $12 million Kirkpatrick sought for upgrades to the main gate at Morris ANG, to Grijalva’s $167,700 request for an education program for students dealing with mental and economic stress. Other requests included everything from affordable housing to water infrastructure, from workforce development to bus shelters, among others.

In the House, more than 340 members asked for $12.4 billion in earmarks for fiscal 2023, up sharply from the $7.1 billion in requests made last year.

While no Arizona Republican asked for earmarks, more than 100 of their House colleagues were not so shy: The top seven House requesters this year were GOP lawmakers.

Texas Rep. Randy Weber led the way with a $545.5 million list that included $283 million to deepen a commercial waterway in his district. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., fell from first place last year to second this year, with $341.1 million in requests. Most of that was $314 million for an Everglades rehabilitation project, the single biggest ask of this year.

Schatz said one of the dangers of earmarks is that they can “entice or encourage or incentivize members of Congress who might otherwise be fiscally conservative to vote for the spending bill, because they have a project in the spending bill.”

But O’Brien said earmarks give lawmakers a chance to “bring back federal dollars to the community.”

“It’s been such a huge, effective and new practice in Congress to do community project funding,” she said. “The people that receive this money – the organizations and the nonprofits and the local municipalities – they’re so grateful and it goes such a long way.”

Related story

Schatz is not convinced.

“If the federal agencies have not approved them in the past, it likely means that they didn’t qualify, or they weren’t a high priority or some other reason why they didn’t get funded,” Schatz said. “So even though somebody asks for them from the local government, or the state government, it still doesn’t mean it should get federal money, or that it’s really essential.

“It just takes away money from other areas of the country that may need it more,” he said. “But because the member of Congress said, ‘Hey, it’s a community project,’ everything is a community project.”

That was echoed by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who said the funds could be better used elsewhere, as the nation battles high inflation and a growing national debt.

“Before Congress returned to the use of earmarks, we should have had a conversation about balancing the budget and reining in Congress’ out-of-control spending,” Lesko said in a statement.

But Stanton said one of the reasons voters send lawmakers to Washington is to fight for local projects.

“I’m going to keep working so that Arizona gets its fair share, and that means delivering on projects that invest in and strengthen our communities,” Stanton said.

House and Senate committees began accepting requests in March, with reviews wrapping up this summer as the fiscal 2023 appropriations bills move through Congress.

Neetish Basnet nih-tihsh BUHS-neht
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Neetish Basnet expects to graduate in summer 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Basnet has worked at several news outlets in north Texas, and recently produced podcasts for The Arizona Republic.