Iowa Legislators Battle Over "Pork-Barrel" Spending
How much will the Iowa government spend next year? We'll find out in the next few weeks.
By Lynn Campbell
Iowa House Republicans are taking a stand against pork-barrel projects, despite some of their own members joining Senate Democrats in wanting to carve out state money for a project back home.
State Rep. Dan Huseman, R-Aurelia, on Tuesday told IowaPolitics.com that he has had the tough job this year of turning down fellow House Republicans who have made requests for earmarks.
“I can think of six of them right at the top of my head that I’ve told, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’” Huseman said.
Among them is state Rep. Steve Lukan, R-New Vienna, who has advocated for spending $5 million for reconstruction of the Lake Delhi dam, which flooded and failed in July 2010.
The Iowa House is scheduled Wednesday to debate Senate File 2316, the $190.2 million Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund that uses state gambling tax receipts to pay for construction, repair and maintenance of state building projects.
Republicans, who hold a 60-40 majority in the Iowa House, have stripped $7.3 million in earmarks from the Senate’s version of the bill, approved March 19 on a 26-24 vote.
“At a time when government at all levels … is looking for efficiencies, we must resist any attempts to handout earmarks to any special projects,” said state Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls. “Cedar Valley voters have continuously told me to rein in government spending and protect their tax dollars.”
Watch them fall.
The Iowa Great Lakes area, for example, would not get $200,000 originally promised by the Iowa Senate for an electric fish barrier to prevent Japanese carp from swimming around two dams and creating a hazard for people boating or fishing.
The Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority would not get $2 million to develop rapid-transit bus service.
Lake Delhi wouldn't get its $5 million for dam reconstruction, and the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in the Grout Museum District in Waterloo would not get $150,000 for an interactive oral history collection and exhibit about the deployment of Iowa National Guard and reserve units to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Once you start doing carve-outs or earmarks, or whatever you want to call them, some call them ‘pork,’ where does it stop?” Huseman asked. “We need to be pretty careful with those dollars that we do have and make sure we’re taking care of things that we need to take care of … instead of spending that money on new earmarks.”
Huseman is co-chairman of the Legislature’s infrastructure appropriations subcommittee. He said some lawmakers used to call him "porky," a not-so-subtle reference to a tradition of carving out pork projects in the infrastructure budget.
The teasing has abated, he said.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, rejected criticism of the earmarks included in the Senate version of this year’s infrastructure budget bill. He asserted that House Republicans likely included their own pork in the bill. GOP lawmakers say that's not the case.
“One person’s pork is somebody else’s valuable resource to their community,” Dvorsky said. “If you consider regents university buildings pork, then sure, there’s lots of it in there. I really don’t like the way that the press has portrayed all that. A lot of them are really useful infrastructure they need for the state.”
The issue of spending $150,000 for the Grout Museum District is expected to re-surface Wednesday. State Sen. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls, has offered an amendment to re-insert the money into the bill.
But House Republicans plan to resist the move.
Rogers said even though the project is in his home district in northeast Iowa, voters sent him to the Legislature to be fiscally responsible. He said if the Iowa House starts accepting earmarks,100 state representatives will want something for their own districts.
“Grout Museum is something that I really believe in. It’s a great museum,” Rogers said. “But a lot of people that voted for me talked about our government getting too big, and earmarks being one of those problems.”
Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, vigorously defended giving money to the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, which, he said, is an important part of recording the state’s history.
"Pork tends to be something specific for your district, but this is something for the whole state,” he said.
Dotzler said he thinks the same about the Lake Delhi dam reconstruction, even though it's not in his area.
“That’s so important to their local economy, but I’m not from there, so I could say, ‘Well, wow, that was some pork for them,’” Dotzler said. “But in reality, that’s important to that district and that area and that community and the people that live there …I think what’s good for one community is good for all of Iowa.”
The 2012 legislative session is tentatively scheduled to end April 17, the 100th calendar day of session when lawmakers’ per diem, or daily expense allowance of $100.50 a day for lawmakers from Polk County and $134 a day for all other lawmakers, runs out.
The infrastructure budget is one of several that is expected to be heading to a conference committee to resolve differences between the chambers, as state lawmakers finish their work for the year.