LI agencies worry about potential cuts in federal fundingBy TOM BRUNE AND BART JONES
November 7, 2010
For many Long Island nonprofits and agencies, the pain of the new budget-cutting mood here could well start with a ban next year on earmarks - resulting in the loss of tens of millions of dollars for local projects.
At the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth organization, officials say that could endanger a hotline that provides young people with immediate assistance if they are being bullied or face violence.
"These earmarks are critical for organizations like ours," David Kilmnick, chief executive of the Bay Shore group, said of the program funded by a $500,000 earmark secured by Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington).
Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) cited a proposed Dune Road elevation project, meant to address tidal flooding in East Quogue and Quogue.
"Good earmarks give the elected representatives an opportunity to address real needs in his or her district that are going to go unaddressed if the decisions are left to unelected bureaucrats," he said.
Often criticized but much sought after, earmarks appear destined to be first on the chopping block as the new GOP House majority puts a new focus on slashing federal spending to trim the federal deficit.
Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is calling for a total ban on earmarks to stop what he calls "runaway spending." The day after the election, President Barack Obama cited Cantor's call and said, "That's something I think we can work together on."
But for local Long Island projects, it could be costly.
Last year, the Long Island delegation brought home $65 million in earmarks for after-school programs, street resurfacing and Army Corps of Engineers work on shorelines, according to a compilation by the nonpartisan watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense. In this year's budget, which Congress will take up when it returns next week, the Long Island lawmakers have proposed another estimated $32 million worth of earmarks.
But some experts and New York lawmakers said that while calling for a ban on earmarks makes a powerful political point, it's not likely to save much money. Instead, they said a ban allows federal agencies to spend most of the money on something other than local projects.
"It's a good issue to run on," Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said of the call for an earmark ban. "Even though it's not a lot of money, it's something that most people understand and can relate to."
Unsure of ban's impact
Earmarks are federal funds directed to a project or organization by a lawmaker instead of by a federal formula or competitive process. They became notorious after news of millions of dollars going to a "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, or being abused in a pay-to-play schemes by unscrupulous lawmakers and defense contractors.
The House GOP has a one-year moratorium preventing their members from earmarking. House Democrats don't earmark for for-profit businesses but both parties in the Senate allows all earmarks. Congress won't consider what to do about earmarks until January, and a ban or moratorium wouldn't kick in until the budget created next year. The House can refuse to pass Senate earmarks.
But Ellis is among those who question whether a ban would have that big of an impact. Earmarks amount to less than 1 percent of federal spending, Ellis said. In the $3.8-trillion budget being considered by
Congress, there are earmarks worth about $9 billion.
Not everyone agrees. Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste said earmarks duplicate federal agency spending, drive up overall appropriations and often go to wasteful or questionable projects.
"Members of Congress say that earmarks do not increase overall spending," he said. "But what they do is they take away from higher priority spending."
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights) defends earmarking and opposes any cuts.
Take his earmarks for the after-school program at Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center in East Hills, $200,000 awarded last year and $100,000 requested in this year's budget.
"Say you cut the after-school program," Ackerman said. "So these young kids are cut loose at 3 instead of 5 or 6. That means mom has to now work part-time instead of full-time. The family income is now less, so they are spending less. They don't go to movies. So the theater lays off the guy who sells popcorn."
And so on, he said.
Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) said they want to reform earmarks, not ban them. McCarthy is for barring recipients of earmarks from contributing to the campaigns of earmarking lawmakers. "Break the links between earmarks and fundraising," McCarthy said.
King said he favors extending the current House GOP moratorium on earmarks for a year or two "to get the system cleaned up." He said the call for an earmark ban to save money appears to be a harbinger of budget cuts to come.
"We're going to be seeing cuts made pretty much across the board," King said. "But I'm not one of those people who say all the money being spent is wasteful and is easy to be cut. These cuts are going to be painful."