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Lloyd Omdahl, Published March 16 2009

ND loves all those earmarks

If you have an advantage, never give it up. That is an iron rule in politics.

So before North Dakota joins the anti-earmark hysteria sweeping Washington, we need to consider the great advantage the state has been enjoying under this budget- inflating practice. All three members of our congressional delegation occupy such strategic positions that North Dakota has more clout per Congress member than any other state in the Union.

Using their key positions, they have been bringing millions of dollars in earmarks to the state for a whole host of projects and programs. And they will continue to bag millions more if the earmarking system stays in place. Indeed, we can look forward to “getting our share.”

Beneficiaries are many and varied. North Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota, Minot State University, State College of Science at Wahpeton and Bismarck State College have garnered millions via earmarks.

Water projects for Riverdale, Southeast Water Users, Washburn, Fortuna, Noonan, Columbus, Lakota, North Central Rural Water and the Walsh Water all received gobs of money, not to mention earmarks for the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, city airports, Rugby REAP zones and other projects.

Earmark requests originate with North Dakota groups that are unable to break through the usual appropriation process. In the context of the trillion-dollar budgets being processed in Washington, their projects are too small for consideration by the whole Congress. Or their need has been forgotten. Or their project has been scrubbed. The earmark is their only hope.

“It’s bipartisan. It’s all about political expediency,” one Washington observer noted recently. Both parties suffer the ravages of earmark fever. For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnnell, R-Ky., both have baskets of earmarks in the current appropriation bill – Reid has

$26 million worth of requests and McConnell has $75 million.

This political wailing by Congress members about earmarks rings pretty hollow when only a handful of them forgo the opportunities. But they’ll get their reward in the next election when the folks back home find out that they passed up millions in earmarks while others were “getting their share.” That’ll be good political fodder for challengers.

There is no doubt that the earmarking system has been abused. It requires curbing. Some of the projects cannot be justified by any rational criteria. I’m not sure all of the earmarks obtained for North Dakota would stand the test of national exposure. However, most of the earmark “waste” being condemned in Washington today consists of projects similar to those being funded in North Dakota. This “waste” we hear about seems to be money spent in somebody else’s state or congressional district.

In view of North Dakota’s strategic position in Congress, millions of dollars will be lost to North Dakota if earmarks are abolished. So which will we sacrifice: the principle of less spending or the advantage of “pork” on the North Dakota table? Keep in mind that we have an advantage.

Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com