Earmarked for Results

Many decades ago, congress and other legislative bodies were given the opportunity to establish discretionary funding programs to enable them to direct governmental investment into programs in their states and districts for economic development.  These programs were understood to be economic stimulus projects which were/are to small to warrant detailed review of the entire representative body of government and were (theoretically at least) intended to meet some objective criteria.  While it is arguable whether any of the criteria were established or deployed and that the motives for many of the projects and programs awarded and funded were about anything other than self-interest of the elected officials and those close to them, many earmarked (pork barrel) spending projects and programs did and have resulted in the development of regions and job markets which may never have had the opportunity through the “normal” budget authorization and appropriations processes.

Having lived in seven states over the past twenty years, I have witnessed the manipulation and management of funding through the influence of veteran politicians and entrenched senior “statesmen” at federal, state, and local levels.  The programs and influence, the appropriations and connections to the inner circle of the political machine have been both awe inspiring and mind-boggling.  Earmarked programs have come through observation and practice to be synonymous with “pork”…unnecessary spending that benefits a limited few.

Earmarked funding does not necessarily equate to pork or wasteful spending.  Earmarked programs can, in fact, be true economic development programs which benefit local, state, regional, and federal competitiveness and create employment and economic opportunities.  Unfortunately, too many projects are reminiscent of a “bridge to nowhere” costing millions of dollars and providing limited benefit even to a local economy.

Where is the line between earmarked (discretionary economic development) and pork (influence peddling, waste)?  The line can be identified by several criteria:

  • Are there specific economic objectives?
  • Is there a clearly stated target population who will either participate or receive direct benefits?
  • Are there clear metrics for determining whether a return on investment is achieved?
  • Is the program giving away dollars to “buy a meal” or is the spending “teaching someone to fish”?
  • What are the quantifiable and/or identifiable ripple effects of the program – grants to fund the development of businesses and job creation have ripple effects of increases in tax base, asset base, payroll taxes, transactions to support industries and services, etc.?
  • Who is involved and what are the qualifications of the person managing the program?
  • Who is providing oversight?
  • How is the money being spent – given all at once to a recipient with no oversight or used as reimbursement of reviewed and audited expenses?

Earmarked doesn’t mean waste.  There is arguably as much influence and waste in the “regular” budget line items and the established contracting processes as in “pork” programs.  The bottom-line is that any program whether earmarked or not can be a result of deals and influence.  It is also true that earmarked programs have, through the decades, resulted in significant economic impact and development for areas of the country which lagged behind in technology, jobs, and, well, “political clout”.

Regardless of how a program is funded, the designation of “pork barrel” status can be determined only by the impact of its results.  As taxpayers, every person should have the expectation that programs make a difference and are not measured solely on the criteria of how funding was obtained.  The bottom line for all of us is that our nation grows stronger and more competitive as businesses are created and grow.  This can happen as jobs are created and our workforce is educated in practical terms in the real world, not in the theoretical realm and the artificial circles of influence that exist in the political arenas.

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