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Earmark bashing and Mississippi

In the television commercial, a patient in his dressing gown sits on the examination table awaiting the doctor. All of a sudden, everything around him containing plastics begins to disappear. The telephone, the clock, x-rays and x-ray reader, parts of the physician’s stethoscope and even the pad covering the examination table all melt away.

Of course, this commercial is designed to remind viewers of all of the necessary and luxurious items that are available because of plastics. The secondary theme is that many of them are taken for granted.

The commercial is an appropriate metaphor for this discussion of congressional budgetary earmarks.
Earmarks, which are notations in the federal budget directing that funding be spent on a specific item or project within a particular state or congressional district, are receiving quite a bashing in the media. These items are not subject to debate and the total amount is generally governed by a preset agreement as to the overall amount that will be allocated as earmarks.

The cynical critics often label earmarks as “pork barrel” or “pork.” The number of earmarks in the federal budget reached an all-time high in the current fiscal year, totaling somewhere between 13,500 and 15,900, depending on whose count you accept.

Articles designed to raise the ire of the taxpayer recite a litany of seemingly obscure projects in far flung reaches of the country. Funding for Mormon cricket and grasshopper activities in Utah; potato breeding in Aberdeen, Idaho; the Montana Sheep Institute; horn fly research in Alabama; and renovation of a public pool in Banning, Calif., are some examples.

You also may have heard it said that what is pork in Alabama is a worthy research project in Mississippi.

And the reality?

The reality is that earmarks have done a great deal to “democratize” the expenditure of federal funds on projects and research, many of which would never happen due to lack of funding. Earmarks have kept states with fewer resources competitive with the more well-to-do states.

When it comes to state and local general revenue as a percentage of personal income, the top five spots on the list are Alaska, New Mexico, Mississippi, North Dakota and West Virginia, according to a report compiled by the Rockefeller Institute. The same five states occupy the top five when looking at state general revenue alone. This statistic is a reflection of the fact that the amount of an individual’s income taken up by state and local budgets exacts a bigger burden in these states than the others.

Yet, additional figures show how actual revenue per capita available to spend is lowest in the country. In short, Mississippi and states like her are doing all that they can to keep up with the cost of services to their citizens.

Becoming, staying competitive

How can a state like Mississippi become competitive and remain so? Because of being badly outnumbered in the halls of Congress, Mississippi voters have wisely chosen leaders and have understood the necessity to keep them in Congress to build seniority for ascendancy into leadership positions.
Perhaps the biggest plums of all are the chairmanships of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

The memories are still quite vivid of the days of Congressman Jamie Whitten and Sen. John Stennis as chairmen of these two budget controlling committees. Lately, Mississippi has been blessed by the able hand of Sen Thad Cochran at the helm of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

One only has to tour the state to discover all of the benefits that we have received from the directing of federal dollars at vital needs throughout Mississippi. University research projects and the facilities in which to conduct the research will benefit the state and nation long after the original dollars have been spent. Many jobs will have been created, and will last long after the completion of the initial projects. Numerous public works and highway projects have made it possible for Mississippi to claim a quality of life that would make it competitive in the eyes of business and industry.

Sen. Cochran and his staff have done a masterful job of handling the appropriations process, and have done so in a bipartisan fashion. In so doing, Sen. Cochran’s influence should continue to stand us in good stead as we enter the new period of a Democratic Party majority in the Congress.

Appreciating the value

If you believe that the scientists and researchers at our universities are as good as there are anywhere, and if you believe that the best of highways and other infrastructure will enable us to attract the jobs that will put money in our citizens’ pockets, then you will appreciate the value that has been added to these endeavors by earmarks and the leaders who sent them in our direction.

Otherwise, think about what it would be like if we were like the guy in the doctor’s office and everything in Mississippi paid for by earmarks began melting away.

Marty Wiseman, Ph.D., is executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

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