Inside the Capitol

Sunday, August 22, 2010

8-27 Pork Getting a Little Smelly

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Bringing home the bacon is a sure way to win reelection. That has always been a firmly-held belief among New Mexico incumbent lawmakers.
Occasionally it doesn't work because other factors outweigh it. But in Congress this year, bringing home the bacon can cause enough of a stink to be fatal to an incumbent's career.
In Utah, earlier this summer, longtime Sen. Bob Bennett was kept off the ballot by Tea Party and other conservative groups because he is a big spender. One of the charges concerned the large amounts of money he brings to Utah for special projects.
Bennett is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a prime position for getting earmarks to his state. Earmarks are what we call pork in New Mexico.
Last January President Barack Obama proposed the discontinuance of NASA's Constellation space exploration program which was to take us back to the moon. Bennett has been one of the key players in trying to get the program back into the budget. It means thousands of jobs in Utah.
Bennett's Republican opponent promised to fight to keep the Constellation program in Utah. Bennett pointed out the inconsistency in promising to stop bringing federal money back to the state while also pledging to keep the money coming. It didn't work.
Bennett isn't the only U.S. senator to suffer the wrath of primary election voters for bringing home the bacon. Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.) and Carolyn Kilpatrick (D- Mich.) have all lost primary elections despite being big providers for their home states.
U.S. House members are getting nervous about anti-earmark fever getting to them also. Both the Democratic and Republican caucuses have adopted measures to voluntarily restrict or ban the use of earmarks for the present fiscal year.
Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House to scrap all earmarks in favor of a system of competitive grants. A similar system has been discussed in New Mexico that would create an agency to evaluate and rank capital outlay needs around the state. They would then be funded with money already appropriated by the Legislature.
The idea has been discussed but never has reached the point of being introduced as legislation. And it won't be. New Mexico lawmakers are too convinced that their pork victories will keep getting them elected.
It's a shame because that money could be used for budget balancing. It is severance tax income that occurs every year. The amount fluctuates yearly depending on the amount of minerals severed from our land and their value.
The body of the Severance Tax Permanent Fund is intended for use when the state faces difficult economic times. Since the state's Permanent Fund, created decades before the Severance Tax Permanent Fund, is designated for the same type of purpose, it might be assumed that the severance tax fund might be for days that aren't quite as rainy.
But until New Mexicans get as tough on their legislators as residents of some other states are beginning to get, New Mexico legislators will continue to put pet projects ahead of fiscal responsibility.
For New Mexico, now would be a good time for Congress to do away with earmarks. Four out of five members of our congressional delegation are rookies in their positions.
They replace some of the state's members of Congress who were masters of bringing money to New Mexico. Former senators Dennis Chavez and Clinton Anderson brought tons of money to our state, especially for military bases and national labs.
Former Sen. Pete Domenici saw to it that those sources of money for New Mexico continued.
And former Rep. Joe Skeen added quite nicely to the pot with his subcommittee chairmanship on the House Appropriations committee. Those positions are so powerful, the chairmen are called cardinals.
FRI, 8-27-10

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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