Funds for Alaska projects held up in spending bills

Posted: Monday, October 14, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska may miss out this year on funding for projects that Sen. Ted Stevens usually includes in federal spending bills because Congress is at an impasse with 11 of the 13 annual spending bills.

''Because of the failure to enact those bills, there will be some real consternation out there, particularly in the smaller states, in being able to get a fair share of the federal spending,'' Stevens said.

Late last week, two weeks into the new fiscal year, Congress finally agreed on two bills that fund the military. The other spending bills are stalled in a standoff between House Republicans and Senate Democrats over the amount of overall spending.

To keep from shutting the government down, lawmakers are passing a series of stopgap spending bills, called continuing resolutions, that keep the money flowing at the levels established in last year's appropriations bills.

Ongoing programs such as Head Start and Medicaid and the National Park Service's budget for paying its electric bills, carry on.

But the special ''earmarks'' that Stevens and other lawmakers put into budget bills directing departments to spend a portion of their funds on a community center, sewer system or military hospital don't exist until a new bill is passed.

Stevens' office doesn't keep totals of his earmarks but they usually amount to hundreds of millions of dollars for Alaska.

Among the scores of special items he sought this year are $500,000 for sonar fish counters, $100,000 to study the feasibility of a causeway to Fire Island, $1 million for dredging in Cook Inlet, $3.3 million to buy land for the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and $4 million for a Coast Guard dock in Cordova.

Without earmarks, the departments will have more discretion to spend their budgets where they wish.

Reformers and budget hawks argue that the departments should have discretion because they know best where the money should be spent. Earmarks, they say, funnel money based on a lawmaker's political clout rather than the merit of a project or program and the members of the Appropriations Committee get the lion's share.

Stevens doesn't see it that way. Earmarks, he said, let small states have a slice of the enormous federal pie that goes largely to the major cities.

''The demand for these moneys, for (Housing and Urban Development) for instance, for downtown Chicago and downtown New York and Miami and Los Angeles -- it will swamp the small portions of the money that would be going to Fairbanks or Anchorage,'' Stevens said.

Stevens has enshrined some of his projects into the budget -- the Denali Commission, which got $83 million last year to build infrastructure in rural Alaska, and the Alaska Native Education Equity Act, for example -- through separate bills. The continuing resolutions keep their funding at last year's level.

Lawmakers had hoped to adjourn Friday, but now it looks like there will be a lame-duck session after next month's elections. Still, Congress is likely to adjourn for the year without passing any more appropriations bills.

Stevens is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. If the GOP retakes the Senate this fall, he'll be chairman again. He said he would probably begin work in January on next year's batch of spending bills and give up on those pending from this year with some modification of the continuing resolutions ''to take care of the little states,'' he added.

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