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Earmark requests by Californians in Congress get increased public scrutiny

Despite President Obama’s pledge to crack down on pork-barrel spending, California House members are not shying away from seeking money for pet projects. In the fiscal 2010 spending bills, they are asking for earmarks big and small -- from $10 million to buy 665 acres in Malibu (for the largest addition to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in more than 15 years) to $250,000 for repairs to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

The special spending used to be slipped into legislation, often at the behest of lobbyists, with little if any public scrutiny.

But in the name of ethics and transparency, the House is requiring its members to post the earmarks they are seeking online, as well as the rationale for taxpayers to fund them. The Senate is requiring its members to disclose earmark requests 30 days before Senate committees begin writing bills.

Judging by the long wish lists appearing on lawmakers’ websites, it won’t be easy for Obama to change Congress’ spending habits.

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For example, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) has posted 45 pages’ worth of requests, including $500,000 for the city of Highland to buy police equipment and $1 million to improve Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs.

“The congressman doesn’t make any decisions on which projects to support based on who the lobbyist is,” spokesman Jim Specht said. “These projects will all provide important public benefits to his constituents, or bring jobs to the district while providing innovative new technologies to help our nation’s troops.”

And Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), who is seeking $100,000 to install anti-graffiti coating on storefront windows in the Florence-Firestone district, said the project would “encourage more businesses to open in the area.”

As well as opening up the earmark process to public scrutiny, the new requirements have produced some insight into lawmakers’ views on federal spending.

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Several Californians -- including Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), John Campbell (R-Irvine) and Darrell Issa (R-Vista) -- are not seeking earmarks.

“After eight years in office, it’s become clear to me that projects are not judged on the merits but on the seniority and power of the requesting member or lobbyist,” Issa said in a statement.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater) has said he will pursue money for cities in his district but will not seek earmarks for any private companies.

But Reps. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Carlsbad) and Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) are seeking $26 million to fund the Predator drones that are built by San Diego-based General Atomics. The company’s political action committee and its employees were the top campaign contributors to Bilbray and Hunter in the 2007-08 election cycle, providing $17,150 and $20,700, respectively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign fundraising.

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Joe Kasper, a Hunter spokesman, called the unmanned aerial vehicles “critical to our nation’s combat mission in Afghanistan.” Bilbray spokesman Fritz Chaleff said the congressman has been open about his earmark requests, adding that Bilbray made the request after being told about the drones’ importance during a visit to Afghanistan.

In one of the more ambitious requests, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) is seeking $4.2 billion for production of more C-17 cargo planes at Boeing’s Long Beach plant. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has targeted the plane in proposed military spending cuts.

A large number of lawmakers are seeking money for “green” projects -- including $500,000 that Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) wants for an Alternative Energy Training Institute at College of the Canyons in Valencia and $300,000 sought by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) to install solar panels on South Pasadena City Hall.

Transportation projects make up a large number of the requests.

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Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) is seeking $12 million to help fund a bus-only lane on Wilshire Boulevard and $5 million for preliminary engineering for Los Angeles’ “Subway to the Sea.”

Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) is seeking $5 million for preliminary engineering for the widening of the 5 Freeway between the 710 and 605.

And Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) is seeking $30 million to extend Metrolink commuter rail from downtown Riverside to Perris.

The funding requests also reflect personal interests. For example, Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar), a Civil War history buff, is seeking $10 million to preserve battlefields.

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“It doesn’t appear that the light of day has abated many lawmakers’ appetites for earmarks,” said Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, “but at least now, their constituents can evaluate the requests and hold their elected officials accountable.”

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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