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Originally published Friday, December 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Pricey earmarks thrive despite criticism

Twice in the past two years, Alaska lawmakers were forced to back away from plans to build two "bridges to nowhere" after Congress was embarrassed...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Twice in the past two years, Alaska lawmakers were forced to back away from plans to build two "bridges to nowhere" after Congress was embarrassed by public complaints over earmarks hidden in spending bills.

This year, Alaska Republicans Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens found another way to move cash to their state: Stevens secured more than $20 million for an "expeditionary craft" that would connect Anchorage with Point MacKenzie on a rural peninsula of Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Now what Alaska has, budget watchdogs contend, is a ferry to nowhere.

"Earmarks are a bipartisan affliction," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog. "It would take leadership in both parties — and a lot more shame — to ever rein them in."

Democrats vowed to use their first year in the majority to slash the number of such pet projects. The tally did come down, budget watchdogs said, but the audacity of the requests is little reduced.

Among routine requests for roads and dams, Taxpayers for Common Sense found $100,000 for signage in Los Angeles' fashion district, $9 million for "rural domestic preparedness" in Kentucky and two $250,000 Washington state earmarks for a wine and culinary center in Prosser, Benton County, and a restoration of the Bremerton Public Library.

This year's spending bills contain about 25 percent fewer earmarks than the 2006 appropriations, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. But lawmakers this year generally did not count earmarks in bills composed almost solely of regional projects, such as the military-construction bill.

Trimming earmarks by changing their definition "is like saying you're meeting your weight-loss goal by not counting your backside," Ellis said.

The House required lawmakers to sign their names to earmarks, identify beneficiaries and locations, and certify that neither they nor their families had a financial stake. But the Senate failed to trim earmarks as severely and tinkered with the language of the rules, limiting disclosure to their authors' names, Ellis said.

The Taxpayers for Common Sense audit shows that a handful of lawmakers continued to sponsor earmarks worth more than $10 million for ProLogic, a West Virginia company under federal investigation for its role in receiving earmarked money.

The omnibus provides $126,000 for the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio, a favorite cause of Republican Rep. Ralph Regula, whose wife founded the museum and whose daughter runs it. Regula has requested hundreds of thousands of federal dollars for the museum since 1991, when he persuaded the National Park Service to pay $1.1 million for its headquarters — the girlhood home of Ida Saxton McKinley, the 25th first lady.

The Alaska ferry project is one of the more expensive earmarks. Billed as an "expeditionary craft" to be used by the military, it is considered a passenger ferry by Young, according to his spokeswoman. It would follow roughly the same path as the proposed Knik Arm Bridge, the second of the "bridges to nowhere." Stevens put the earmark that funded the ferry into the defense appropriations bill, which Bush signed last month.

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Congress earmarked $231 million for the bridge in 2005 but, amid national criticism, removed a mandate to spend the money on the project. Alaska still has an option to use much of the funding to build the bridge, and an authority created by the state Legislature in 2003 continues to promote the project. The other "bridge to nowhere," which would have connected Ketchikan to its airport, was killed by the state in September.

Young's son-in-law owns land in Matanuska-Susitna Borough, two hours by car from Anchorage. A ferry would shorten that commute to 15 minutes, making the borough valuable for development.

Spokeswoman Meredith Kenny confirmed the Young family connection. "Many Alaskans own land there," she said.

"They've been working on this since the mid-1990s. It's bipartisan, well-wanted and needed. It's a bridge to growth and development."

Seattle Times staff contributed information on the Alaska bridges to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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