Fact check: State Democrats miss mark on earmarks

  • Sat Aug 28th, 2010 10:12pm
  • News

By Curt Woodward Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Sen. Patty Murray’s campaign and state Democrats say Republican challenger Dino Rossi is a hypocrite for opposing federal earmark spending, pointing to a list of construction projects approved when Rossi was a prominent state senator.

A closer look at the facts shows the charge is off-base.

Democrats are pulling their list of “earmarks” from a 2003 state budget for construction projects that they claim Rossi developed. While Rossi had a leading role in the state budget that paid for day-to-day government operations, the separate construction budget was someone else’s project.

Moreover, some of the projects Democrats use as earmark examples don’t fit the general definition of the term, which refers to targeted spending determined mostly by a legislator’s influence.

Democrats’ looseness with the facts undermines what could be a decent campaign argument: That Rossi is against the federal earmark process now, but presents no evidence that he tried to reform or resist a similar system in the state Legislature.

Rossi isn’t pure on the issue either. Democrats point to a 2004 gubernatorial debate in which Rossi claimed he was also “in charge of” the construction budget.

That wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. A look at some of the claims and how they compare with the known facts:

———

THE CLAIMS:

“He has spent his entire campaign slamming earmarks and berating the positive impact that federal dollars have had on Washington state’s economy, but Dino has conveniently left out the part where he included $25 million in earmarks in one state budget.” — State Democratic Party.

“Dino Rossi included millions in earmarks in his budget as the chair of the State Senate Ways and Means Committee.” — Murray campaign.

“I didn’t have money just to hand the higher ed institutions. But we did have capacity in the Capital Budget, because I was also in charge of that.” — Rossi, in a 2004 KING-TV debate.

THE FACTS:

All of these claims are untrue.

In 2003, Rossi was chairman of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee. His primary job was working with the state House and governor’s office — both controlled by Democrats — to write an Operating Budget for the day-to-day expenses of state government.

Helping to balance that year’s budget deficit catapulted Rossi from obscure state lawmaker to major political name, and led directly to his two failed bids for governor in 2004 and 2008.

But the money Democrats and Murray’s campaign are talking about is contained in a different budget — the Capital Budget, which details how the state will spend money on construction projects.

It’s a separate bill, acted on with separate votes. But most importantly for this discussion, that construction budget was written by other lawmakers. In 2003, the senator in charge of the capital budget was Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.

Of course, the construction budget moved through Rossi’s Ways and Means Committee. But it wasn’t his project and can’t be described as “Rossi’s budget.” By the same token, Rossi was exaggerating his role as chairman in 2004 by saying he was “in charge of” the Capital Budget.

———

THE CLAIMS:

“Dino’s budget had fire power — $150,000 worth of it — to buy land for the state’s Firearms and Archery Range Recreation Program.” — State Democrats.

“Rossi’s budget included $6.2 million to encourage people to go off-roading.” — State Democrats.

The state party labeled each of those programs as an “earmark to remember.”

THE FACTS:

At bottom, the term “earmark” generally describes a chunk of spending that is targeted at a specific project, often outside of a competitive winnowing process, backed mostly or solely by a legislator’s request.

The two programs Democrats have pointed out in this case actually are competitive state grant programs, not purely legislator-driven earmarks.

Grants under the state’s Firearms and Archery Range Recreation Program and Non-Highway and Off-Road Vehicles Program are vetted and ranked by outside bodies before being submitted to the Legislature for financing.

And again, neither of these programs were part of the Operating Budget that Rossi helped write. They’re located in the construction budget, which was someone else’s project.

———

POSTSCRIPT:

Finding out which state legislators asked for which projects in the state Capital Budget is not really possible. As Murray’s campaign noted, there’s no system on the state level for publicly identifying which spending items are requested by individual legislators.

There is such a transparency initiative on the federal level, but it’s also important to note that political pressure from scandals tied to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff prompted those reforms.

The purest “pork” programs in the state Capital Budget are usually collected in one category: Local and Community Projects, a list that officials say is based on requests from legislators. In 2003’s budget, these grants totaled about $12 million.

Reviewing that list turns up no projects in Rossi’s 5th Legislative District. One bit of state construction spending elsewhere in the budget was, however, clearly destined for Rossi’s hometown of Sammammish: $600,000 “to help make waterfront and dock improvements” at a park.

It wasn’t requested by the state agency that administered the spending and wasn’t in any early versions of the budget. According to state documents, that bit of spending was among the items that showed up only in the final construction budget after negotiations between the House, Senate and governor.