Senator Alex Padilla boasts of having secured around $250 million for 134 projects ranging from improving bike and pedestrian lanes to flood control.
The California Democrat, like most of his bipartisan counterparts, embraces the much-maligned earmarking system — spending on hog barrels that rewards a congressman without putting the spending under serious scrutiny.
The system “bypasses the normal process by which projects must compete for merit,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, one of four California House members who did not seek earmarking.
Most members of Congress are committed to funding local public works, and four of the top five recipients that year were Republicans, according to data compiled by Citizens Against Government Waste, a conservative financial watchdog.
Padilla said his projects go through a thorough legislative process before funding is secured.
“All projects were reviewed by our office, released and approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee before being included in the final funding bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support,” Padilla spokesman Sam Mahood said.
Ear tags were banned in 2011 after a series of scandals, but made a comeback last year. Lawmakers saw them not just as tapping into their local expertise, but as an equally important way to build the kind of bipartisan coalitions needed to pass big-money bills. The practice has been renamed “Community Project Funding,” subject to new rules aimed at preventing wasteful spending and conflicts of interest. But unofficially, it’s still best known as earmarking.
One reason for the sudden interest in One of the key features is that Republicans are hammering out what they call excessive federal spending and a deeply flawed legislative process.
Critics say COVID-related spending measures, including 2020 legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump, have helped push the inflation rate to levels not seen since 1981.
Mahood disagreed with the notion that earmarking is a major driver of more spending.
“This process isn’t about spending more money, it’s about Congress regaining its authority over allocating federal funds,” he said. “Elected representatives who understand the needs of the communities they represent should have a say in funding projects, rather than executive agency officials.”
Padilla’s reservations were part of a $1.5 trillion federal spending bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in March. Projects include reactivation of the Sacramento River Flood Plain. He helped secure $5 million to strengthen flood defenses, replenish aquifers and protect the ecosystem.
Among the other projects in Sacramento:
▪ $3.9 million for the Sacramento River Fish Screen Program. Screens help protect endangered fish species from entering dams or other dangerous structures. Padilla said it would also “ensure a sustainable, efficient and reliable supply of water for agricultural and community needs.”
▪ $2.2 million for the Sacramento Vision Zero School Safety Project. The money will pay for safety measures such as crosswalks, curb ramps, traffic calming aids and new signs around the schools and their neighborhoods.
▪ $2 million for Lower Cache Creek flood control in Yolo County. The US Army Corps of Engineers plans, constructs and designs measures for Lower Cache Creek.
▪ $1.7 million for the University of California, Davis Digital Health Equity Program. The program aims to improve and continue care for vulnerable populations in the Sacramento area and elsewhere.
▪ $1.5 million for the City of Sacramento’s 24th Street combined sewage system header pipe project. The project aims to ease sewage overflow by installing pipes on 24th Street between H and K streets in Sacramento.
▪ $350,000 for a youth center in Rancho Cordova. The money will help with acquisition costs and staffing, computer lab equipment, art supplies, books and sports equipment.
Citizens Against Government Waste has published a 44-page “Pig Book” detailing the worst examples of earmarking.
The earmarking was ended after reports of a series of dubious expeditions, most notably the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $223 million project that would connect the town of Ketchikan to its airport and 50 residents on nearby Gravina Island .
If the The practice was revived last year, and new, strict guidelines were imposed. Profit-seeking interests were barred from receiving money, members of the House of Representatives were limited to 10 projects, and House and Senate lawmakers must certify that neither they nor immediate family members had any financial interest in the ventures. The Senate put a dollar cap on projects, but senators could get far more than members of the House of Representatives.
Members of both parties eagerly searched for projects. Four of the top five earmarkers are Republicans, according to a ranking compiled by CAGW, led by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, ($647.9 million).
Padilla is eighth. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Appropriations Committee Member, is Sixth ($312 million). Many of the senators’ projects were jointly funded.
In an election year, Padilla will benefit from showing his ability to secure spending.
“Senator Padilla is on the ballot, so any opportunity to show he’s bringing home the bacon is good politics and good politics. For a freshman senator, it’s impressive to have such a haul for your home state,” said Steven Maviglio, a Democrat adviser.
McClintock, who is also up for re-election, had a different take. He didn’t mention Padilla, but asked why local governments couldn’t fund such projects.
“Local projects should be funded by local communities,” he said. One project list reads: “The project is so low on the priority list that they don’t dare spend taxpayers’ money.”
State and local governments routinely rely on federal assistance for public works such as roads and flood control systems.
Spending on bike lanes
Citizens Against Government Waste was particularly critical of Padilla’s four bicycle and pedestrian bridge projects.
CAGW provided $350,000 for the Iron Horse Trail Bridge, Nature Park, and Pedestrian Safety Project in the East Bay Area.
The group presented the Padilla Initiative with the “This Pig Was Made to Walk” award. Padilla’s office said the money will enable “safety improvements and expansions to the Iron Horse Trail in multiple jurisdictions, including the installation of a pedestrian bridge and bike lanes.”
CAGW President Tom Schatz said he cited funding for pedestrians and bike lanes because the $1 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law in November included billions of dollars to promote bike and pedestrian safety.
“It was the largest infrastructure bill in history. There should be enough money for everyone to get a bike path. It should go through the usual review process,” he said.
Padilla’s office noted that the projects have been underway for some time. Many of the bike and pedestrian projects, as well as others, “have waited years to move forward … to improve public safety, economic development and education,” Mahood said.
This story was originally published July 25, 2022 5:00 am.