Palin embraced earmarks as small-town mayor, Alaska governor
GOP vice-presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin touts her record as a reformer who worked to end the "abuses of earmark spending in Congress." But Palin has embraced earmarks from early on in her career as a mayor of Wasilla to the governor's mansion in Juneau. Just this year she sent to Sen. Ted. Stevens a proposal for 31 earmarks totaling $197 million — more, per person, than other state.
Seattle Times staff reporters
ANCHORAGE — As she introduced herself to the nation Friday as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin touted her record as a reformer who worked to end the "abuses of earmark spending in Congress."
But earmarks have never been a dirty word in Alaska, a huge state dotted with small communities that have enormous dollar needs for sewers, roads and other projects.
Instead, earmarks — pet projects that members of Congress fund but that no federal agency has requested — have become a mainstay of political life here, and one that Palin embraced from early on in her career as a mayor of Wasilla to the governor's mansion in Juneau.
Just this year, she sent to Sen. Ted. Stevens, R-Alaska, a proposal for 31 earmarks totaling $197 million — more, per person, than any other state.
Her presidential running mate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., does not sponsor earmarks, calling the practice of doling out favors, often with scant oversight, "disgraceful."
Some of Palin's requests were for science research, such as $499,900 to assess halibut harvesting; others for lighting village airports in the Alaskan bush, where small planes and gravel runways may be the primary link to the outside world.
Palin's requests to Congress came at a time of huge federal deficits, while Alaska state revenue was soaring due to rising oil prices and a major tax increase on oil production that Palin signed into law in late 2007.
As a result, Alaska this year was in such a money-flushed condition — with no state income tax or sales tax and total state revenues of $10 billion, double the previous year's — that Palin gained legislative approval for $1,200 cash payments to every Alaskan.
In addition, each Alaska resident gets an annual dividend check, about $2,000 this year, from Alaska's oil-wealth savings account, known as the Permanent Fund, now fattened to more than $35 billion.
The state also has been able to tap into a gusher of federal money as its Republican congressional delegation rose in seniority and clout.
In 1996, when Palin was elected mayor of Wasilla, a city of about 8,000 some 40 miles north of Anchorage, she did not take part in the earmark process.
But by 2000, into her second term, the city had hired a Washington, D.C., lobbyist, Steven Silver, a former aide to Stevens, then the ultimate rainmaker as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"She was hungry for earmarks just like everybody else," said Larry Persily, who worked at the Alaska state office in Washington, D.C., until earlier this year. "Everyone was feeding at the trough."
Before she left office, Wasilla, with aid of the lobbyist and the blessing of Stevens and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, got $27 million in earmarks, according to the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.
During her fall 2006 campaign for governor, Palin appeared to embrace the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere," even after Alaska had been held up for ridicule by McCain and others for what was seen as a wasteful boondoggle, a $233 million bridge that would replace ferry service connecting Gravina Island and its Ketchikan airport to mainland Ketchikan.
In a debate, Palin said she would fight for the earmark to build the bridge. McCain and others sought to divert those funds to help fund Hurricane Katrina recovery. That prompted a threat from Stevens to resign from the Senate for such discrimination against his state.
A year later, as criticism of earmarks mounted, Palin began to speak out against earmarks. Though she took the federal money to fund Alaska earmarks, she diverted the money for the Ketchikan bridge to other projects. She also issued a news release to alert the national media to her action.
Palin's criticisms strained her relationship with Alaska's congressional delegation because they were still receiving plenty of earmark requests that they were trying to push through a Democrat-controlled Congress. This year, in addition to the 31 submitted by Palin's office, there were dozens submitted by smaller communities and borough governments.
"It really drove a wedge between her and the Alaska delegation," Persily said. "She was branding them as irresponsible, and they felt like she was holding them up to public ridicule."
Palin also was admonished by the Fairbanks News-Miner, which chided her for "misplaced criticism" for suggestions that the state earmarks were pork-barrel projects.
Palin wrote back an angry response, saying she had reduced the earmarks — but never labeled them as "pork projects."
Palin wrote that she supports state earmarks "when there is an important federal purpose and strong citizen support."
She also said in the News-Miner that she had slashed the state's earmark requests by nearly two-thirds, down from $550 million in 2007 to just under $200 million.
Palin's earmarks request came just days after President Bush promised in his State of the Union address to veto any spending bills from Congress unless lawmakers cut earmarks in half.
Yet documents Palin's office released to The Seattle Times on Tuesday show her cuts in earmarks were far more modest than she claimed. Last year, Palin requested $254 million in earmarks, not $550 million, so her cuts this year were only 22 percent, not the 63 percent she claimed.
Karen Rehfeld, Palin's Office of Management and Budget director, said she needed to look into the discrepancy between her boss's written remarks and the earmark tally provided by the staff. "We want to make sure we don't have a problem," Rehfeld said.
Hal Bernton: 503-292-1016 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff reporter Christine Willmsen contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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