WatchSonoma Watch

Some earmarks are pork, some aren’t

PD editorial:

If it’s spring, it must be earmark season — that time of year when congressional representatives all over the country make their annual appeals for the things they want funded in their districts.

As reported Wednesday, Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, come out with their own wish lists this week. Combined, their requests total $864 million in potential federal spending. That’s $184 million more than the two combined to request last year.

We don’t blame Woolsey and Thompson for taking part in this congressional ritual. For better or worse, this is how the system works, and they would probably be open to more criticism if they chose to join the majority of House Republicans and not participate this year, potentially leaving many local projects in the lurch. Still, there has to be a better way of distributing federal money.

Earmarks often are tucked into domestic spending bills without proper vetting. There’s rarely any debate at a committee level about whether these represent worthy, locally supported projects. There’s little evaluation or oversight. There’s no competitive-bidding process.

As a result, the process has produced more than its share of bad eggs such as bridges to nowhere, museums in the middle of nowhere and indoor rain forests.

All the same, our legislators have done their best in identifying viable, worthwhile projects, none of which would seem to fall into the bad egg category. (To see the complete list, go to pressdemocrat.com)

In general, Woolsey and Thompson are seeking funding for highway projects, salmon protection and a much-needed Water Agency project to expand the use of recycled water. There are requests for Napa River flood control work, levee repairs, hospital renovations, Pierce’s disease research and the like.

The most intriguing request is for $11.5 million for a public-private laser research and development lab targeted for the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster. If approved, the funding would help the Center for American Laser Innovations get off the ground and operate for a year. Supporters of the project include Raydiance Corp. of Petaluma and Sonoma State University’s engineering department.

The potential payoff is the creation of a regional center that creates private sector jobs and rebuilds and possibly redefines the region’s reputation for technology.

Asking for earmarks is one thing. Getting approval for them is another, however. Woolsey and Thompson will be fortunate to get just 15-20 percent of these requests approved.

Not long ago, these earmark lists were kept pretty much a secret, so progress is being made. But Woolsey and Thompson could contribute more to the cause of transparency — and lessen the perception of this being a campaign-like promotion — if they disclose how they ranked all of these designated projects in terms of priority. It would help locals see for themselves whether the projects they care most about even have a fighting chance for funding.

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