The Annapolis version of earmarks
In Congress, they’re called earmarks, those much-maligned pet projects tucked into huge bills by legislators.
The Florida legislature has a different word – turkeys. Good-government types go turkey hunting every year in Tallahassee, pointing out the fat birds that have been tucked in the budget.
Maryland has its own version of the system, which generally receives little scrutiny. In Annapolis, the biggest source of political patronage is a pot of capital projects money doled out through a process known as “bond bills.” After the General Assemble passes a bond bill for a project, the state borrows money and taxpayers pay it back.
Dozens of projects get money that way each year, from arts centers to historic buildings to training centers and soup kitchens. They’re almost all worthy, and almost never of state-wide importance. Generally, the projects help one community or one neighborhood.
One could construct a decent argument for doling out money this way. In many cases, the state is providing seed money or matching funds, which allows an organization to approach donors and say: “See, the state thinks this project is important; we need your help so we can put the matching funds to use.”
Plus, the money is for bricks and mortar, not operations. So it’s designed to be a one-time layout rather than an annual expense.
But there’s lots of minuses, as Baltimore Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman carefully and illuminatingly documented in Sunday’s paper.
Many lawmakers get named to the boards of groups, and then submit legislation to get funding for that group. Often, they don’t report the relationship on state ethics forms. It seems clear that many organizations invite legislators to serve for just this purpose.
Because hundreds of bond bills get submitted each year, none get very much scrutiny. There’s no system that ranks projects so that those more worthy get put at the top of the list. The more senior and influential a lawmaker is, the more likely it is that his or her bond bill will get approved.
The one-time nature of capital funding seems to be subverted, because many of the same organizations come back repeatedly for more money. And once the state ha s spent money, there’s a vested interest to make sure the project gets completed. As far as taxpayers are concerned, ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ seems to be the Annapolis rule when it comes to bond-bill funding.
Smitherman and Dechter highlighted these problems with the system, which is set to hand out $15 million this year. And with the state looking for $500 million in budget cuts, it would seem there’s every incentive to curtail these projects. But with lawmakers eager to attend ribbon-cuttings for projects they helped build, or make connections through getting on the boards of organizations, what are the chances for change this year? We’ll see.