Palin's take on earmarks evolving

SET-ASIDES: She sought them as mayor, cut back as governor.

September 5, 2008 

WASHINGTON -- Back in late February, when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin met Sen. John McCain for the first time at a convention of U.S. governors, the two dished about a number of things, but mostly earmarks.

"We just talked about earmark reform and how it's going to happen," Palin said in February, shortly after she attended a breakfast for Republican governors featuring McCain as the keynote speaker.

Since McCain announced her last week as his vice presidential running mate, his campaign has worked to paint Palin as a crusader who took on two of the most successful appropriators in the history of Congress: her fellow Republicans and titans of Alaska politics, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. But Palin also sought earmarks, both as a governor and a small-time mayor -- a position that is at odds with McCain's zero tolerance on such spending.

So what exactly is Palin's position on earmarks? Is it an opportunistic evolution mirroring a growing national distaste for the spending practice? Or is it true conviction that Alaska needed to be weaned from such federal spending?

Here's what she said in the February interview:

"My position has been in trying to read that writing on the wall, and understanding there's going to be reform," she said. "We can either put our heads in the sand and ignore the reforms that are coming or we can be proactive and get Alaska in the position of being more productive, contributing more and becoming less reliant on the federal government."

And here's how the McCain campaign sees it: Palin "doesn't mind bucking the establishment to get things done," said her campaign spokeswoman, Maria Comella. "As vice president, she is committed to working with John McCain to end this wasteful, earmark system that she has seen corrupt leaders in Alaska."

Unlike McCain, though, Palin has not been a purist on earmarks. As Alaska governor, she sought and obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for the state, and as mayor of Wasilla, she hired lobbyist and former Stevens staffer Steve Silver to steer federal money to her town. Some of her own earmark projects even landed on McCain's list of questionable congressional pork barrel spending when she served as mayor from 1996 to 2002.

"I think she will fit in really well in Washington D.C. because she is already used to saying one thing and doing another," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a key adviser to Sen. Barack Obama and one of the only Democrats who refuses to ask for earmarks.

"Not only has she taken them, she has gorged on earmarks," McCaskill said. "It's not what you say, it's what you do."


One thing is clear: Palin has increasingly distanced herself from earmarking since she made her first trip to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress for money in 2000. And over the past year, it has been the leading source of tension between Palin and the state's three-member congressional delegation.

Last year, when Palin announced the state was abandoning plans for the so-called "bridge to nowhere" in Southeast Alaska, she was met with what could kindly be described as a frosty reception from the delegation.

Her move embarrassed Stevens and Young -- Stevens even complained publicly this spring that "the issue of earmarks and the way they handled the bridge money" made it challenging for him, Young and fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to ask for any special federal set-asides for Alaska.

"It is a difficult thing to get over right now, the feeling that we don't represent Alaska because Alaska doesn't want earmarks," Stevens said in an interview at the time.

The delegation was so infuriated that it began publicizing on their individual Web sites all of the earmark requests they received from Alaska, just to point out the sheer volume, especially the number originating from the governor's office.

Palin's staff is quick to point out that the governor's office has sliced its federal requests since she took office.

For the 2007 federal budget year, the administration of former Gov. Frank Murkowski submitted 63 earmark requests totaling $350 million, Palin's staff said. That slid to 52 earmarks valued at $256 million in Palin's first year. This year, the governor's office asked the delegation to help them land 31 earmarks valued at $197 million.


Why the gradual move away from earmarks? Palin recognized that Alaska's coffers were overflowing with revenue from oil profits and it was almost unseemly for the state to press so aggressively for federal money, said John Katz, who heads Gov. Palin's Washington, D.C., office. In December of 2007, Palin's budget director put out a memo urging state officials who were assembling their department spending plans to reserve earmarks for compelling needs only, in an effort to "enhance the state's credibility."

"When she took office, we talked about the state's reliance on federal earmarks and she made it clear for several reasons she wanted to significantly cut back on that reliance," Katz said.

Several other factors contributed. The national mood was turning, in part because of the controversy of the proposed bridge, which would have linked the airport on Gravina Island to Ketchikan. That shift meant it would be harder to land earmarks, especially for Alaska. Also, Stevens and Young, while still senior lawmakers, faced a diminishing role in Congress when the GOP lost control to Democrats in 2006.

In 2006 when she was running for governor, Palin was already walking a fine line. She praised the work the congressional delegation had done, but acknowledged change was coming when she appeared with the Alaska Professional Design Council, a group of civil engineers, land surveyors and architects.

She singled out Young for the work he did snagging highway money, saying Alaska was "fortunate to receive the largess that Don Young was able to put together for Alaska" when he oversaw the 2005 highway bill.

But she also said that Alaska's reputation meant that the new governor must find a "diplomatic and supportable way to go about requesting those federal funds."

"I'm going to fight hard with our federal delegation for the federal financial support of our infrastructure that Alaska deserves," Palin said, adding that it might require "minimizing that conventional earmark process."


Even former sinners are welcome into the anti-earmark fold, said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the leading crusader in Congress for scaling back wasteful spending, and someone who calls the way his colleagues dole out earmarks a "favor factory."

"Anybody that comes to Washington that wants to help change the process, and reform the process so that the next couple of generations have some hope, I'm all for them," Coburn said. "If she has a solid position now, I'm all for her. I think she's going to be just what the doctor ordered."

Palin's earmarking got its start when she was mayor of Wasilla. As mayor, she played a role in obtaining $11.9 million for pet projects for her town from 1998 to 2003, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Washington D.C. budget watchdog group.

She also hired a lobbyist who pushed for a $15 million commuter rail project to link Wasilla, Anchorage and Girdwood. The other large earmarks included $2.5 million to start work on an alternative transportation route, $1.5 million for water and sewer improvements, earmarks of $1 million and $900,000 toward an intermodal facility adding parking and bus links to a rail terminal (this project later got $5 million more in the 2005 transportation bill after she left office), and earmarks of $1 million and $750,000 for technology and communications upgrades for a Wasilla Regional Dispatch Center.

McCain listed several of those projects as "objectionable." They included $450,000 for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough for an agricultural processing facility in Wasilla, a $1 million grant to the Wasilla Regional Dispatch Center and $500,000 spent on trails under the Federal Lands Program.

"I think there is somewhat of a jumble there," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"Certainly, when she was mayor, they hired a lobbyist and she got Wasilla into the earmark game, which they're still in today," Ellis said. "When you shift gears to being governor, she has tried to cut back the requests and had some kind of public tiffs with Senator Stevens over the issue of earmarks. There definitely has been some evolution overall in the process."

But like many elected officials, it's not always clear where she stands on earmarks, Ellis added.

"I think she's somewhere in between," he said. "If you look at her more recent comments, it looks like she's seen the light about the process of earmarks and wants to wean the state from its addiction.''

Ironically, shortly after taking office as governor, Palin got an unambiguous forecast on earmarks from Stevens, who signaled in 2007 in a speech to the Alaska Legislature that federal budget writers were taking note of the state's budget surpluses and "the billions of dollars in our Permanent Fund" from burgeoning oil revenues. The earmark era was coming to an end.

Warned Stevens: "To them, the question seems simple: if Alaskans are unwilling to invest in a project, why should the federal government?"

Greg Gordon from McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this article.

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