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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2004

Congress goes on $388 billion shopping spree

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - Christmas came early on Capitol Hill - again. And that means the planners of the B.B. King museum in Mississippi, lovers of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the supporters of the Wild American Shrimp Initiative, the folks fed up with wild hogs in Missouri and Canada geese in New York, and those yearning to transport naturally chilled water from Lake Ontario to Lake Onondaga are thrilled. The checks will soon be in the mail.

But the Toledo area benefits as well as Kauai, Hawaii, Brownsville, Texas, and West Buechel, Ky.

As has become a tradition, the nation's top lawmakers were unable for the last two years to agree on how to spend the nation's discretionary, nondefense tax dollars. So just before rushing home for the holidays, they crammed it all together in an "omnibus spending" package with $388 billion worth of goodies for just about every congressional district.

The highly publicized, embarrassing disclosure that someone somehow added a provision that would have permitted Senate and House staffers to look at individual tax returns means the 435 members of the House have to return for a day in December to cut out that provision through a roll-call vote occurring after debate. (The Senate already killed it and passed the budget on a 65-to-30 vote.) But otherwise, the 3,300 pages stuffed with earmarks for thousands of local projects will stand. And despite the $500-billion-a-year budget deficit President Bush has vowed to reduce, he said he will sign the omnibus bill.

The lawmakers, ever eager to impress their voters with what an effective job they're doing in Washington, already have begun sending out their press releases touting their success in snaring federal dollars for the home front.

What makes this unique way of budgeting in Washington so riveting is that despite all the hearings, all the speeches, all the press releases, and all the campaign promises of the past two years, nobody has come forth to say he or she has read the entire spending bill that both houses of Congress passed late on a Saturday night. Thus, the infamous tax-return language was slipped in and was not discovered until after the lawmakers already had voted.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) told reporters that the way of appropriating money has become so "bizarre" that "we approve hundreds of billions of dollars of bills without anyone seeing them." The watchdog Council of Citizens Against Government Waste complained: "Taxpayers have little to be thankful for, as members of Congress have helped themselves to the whole hog on this Thanksgiving."

Now, lobbyists, activists, lawyers, congressional aides, and journalists are pouring feverishly through dog-eared copies of the mother of all spending bills trying to figure out where all the money is going. It usually takes weeks or months to figure it all out, but some of the most startling ways taxpayer dollars are being spent have come quickly to light.

The bill funds dozens of federal agencies and money for the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Health and Human Services, Interior, State, Labor, Treasury, Transportation, Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development. Thus it includes money for parks; freeways, museums, arts centers, agriculture research on such products as blueberries, grapes and maple trees, jails, zoos, sewers, hospitals and many projects most Americans would never think the federal government would fund.

There will be $1 million spent for a museum honoring musician B.B. King in Indianola, Miss., $350,000 to improve the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and $1 million to help Missouri hog farmers convert the animals' waste to energy. Missouri also gets $50,000 to deal with a wild hog problem. And Missouri gets $1.5 million to store the papers that departing House member Richard Gephardt has kept for 28 years.

Traverse City, Mich., is going to receive $4 million for a people-and-environment-friendly transportation system to help with the summer crowds. Michigan's two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, said that the city swells from 150,000 to nearly 250,000 in the summer and the city needs help with congestion and pollution.

Mr. McCain's wrath spilled out when he found out lawmakers agreed to spend $1 million on a Wild American Shrimp Initiative. Another $4 million has been slotted for shrimp aquaculture in seven states.

Louisville, Ky., gets $100,000 to build a playground. There is $2 million for kitchen relocation in Fairbanks North Star Borough in Fairbanks, Alaska, $1.5 million for a demonstration project to carry water from Lake Ontario to Lake Onondaga, $500,000 for the Kincaid Park Soccer and Nordic Ski Center in Anchorage, $250,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, $199,000 for the control of Canada geese in New York and $443,000 for developing baby food with a salmon base. Kauai gets a homeless shelter. Brownsville gets a longer airport runway. West Buechel gets cameras for its police cars.

But while some of the projects that are getting federal dollars may seem strange, all 50 states and thousands of local communities are desperately waiting for their share.

Ohio is a good example of where the money goes. Sen. Mike DeWine (R, Ohio) is one of the most fiscally conservative members of Congress. But he happily boasted that as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee he was able to get more than $31million for projects in Ohio. "I am pleased I was able to fund these worthy Ohio projects." Sen. George Voinovich (R, Ohio), another fiscal hawk, also took credit for the "worthwhile" projects. His press release said, "These are important and needed investments in our state that will improve the quality of life for Ohioans." When the House finally sends its version to Congress, House members will also take credit.

Northwest Ohio will get $250,000 for a nurse communication module with 25 patient hospital beds for the Hospice of Northwest Ohio in Perrysburg. In Toledo, there will be $450,000 to add space for eight more babies at the neonatal intensive care unit at Mercy Health Partners. The Northwest Ohio Regional Information System Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems gets $200,000 for new computers. And there will be $1 million for right-of-way acquisition and design work on the I-75/I-475 North Interchange in Lucas County. The Historic Holland Theater will get $200,000 for mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

Among other Ohio projects, the Greater Columbus Area Crime Fighting Automated Fingerprint Identification System is getting $400,000 to upgrade computers. The Columbus Children's Hospital Center for Child and Family Advocacy is getting $450,000 for its child abuse and domestic violence program. The Dennison Railroad Depot Museum is getting $200,000 to double its size. Rickenbacker Airport is getting $1.5 million for an "intermodal rail facility."

Dayton will get $600,000 for its Children's Medical Center and Xenia is waiting for $100,000 for police to train agencies on using undercover operations to target child sexual perpetrators on the Internet. In Cleveland, $750,000 is designated to expand the neonatal unit at Rainbow Babies' and Children's Hospital and the city will get $300,000 to buy equipment for the disabled. The Visiting Nurse Association in Cleveland will get 75 home monitoring units in nine counties. Youngstown's Humility of Mary Health Partners will get $700,000 for an inpatient hospice. Euclid Hospital Emergency Department will get $400,000 for renovation. Akron will get $100,000 to restore the Richard Howe House in downtown Akron.

In Cincinnati, $800,000 is earmarked for Good Samaritan Hospital for its high-risk pregnancy center. The Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center is getting $1 million for brain surgery equipment. Loveland's Signs of Suicide Program is getting $100,000 to help prevent suicide in high school students. Oxford is getting $4 million for work on Route 27 and there is $1 million for improvements to I-75 at Hopple and Cincinnati.

In Southeast Ohio $500,000 is set aside for water treatment in Racine in Meigs County, $1 million for the Waverly Connector in Pike County, $100,000 for water treatment in Perry County, $175,000 for a water interconnect project in Washington, Morgan and Noble Counties, $175,000 for a sewer project in Jefferson County.

Statewide, Ohio got $6 million for mass transit vehicles, $375,000 for Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigations to buy equipment to identify palmprints left at crime scenes, $250,000 for automating the bureau's lab and for overtime pay, $800,000 for Smart Card Systems for Central Ohio Transit Authority's intelligent transportation systems and $250,000 for studying the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle, a pest immune to insecticides and with no known natural predators.

Among other pests the omnibus bill targets nationwide are apple fire blight, jointed goatgrass, nematodes, witchweed, boll weevils, screwworms and cattle ticks.

Contact Ann McFeatters at: amcfeatters@nationalpress.com or 202-662-7071.



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