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Federal 'earmark' spending is back. Grand Forks and East Grand Forks hope for millions' worth

Members of the House Appropriations Committee agreed last month to institute Community Project Funding, which is another phrase for the earmarks that allow members of Congress to bring federal money home for specific projects in their districts. Grand Forks and East Grand Forks are asking for millions of dollars' worth of earmarks for five projects between them, including an inter-city bridge over the Red River.

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The U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 16, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks officials are asking the federal government for tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure projects.

Grand Forks city staff last week submitted to Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., a five-project list of potential targets for Community Project Funding, at the top of which is a $3 million request that would pay for about half of the cost of demolishing the city’s old water treatment plant to clear the way for developers. The list also includes another $4 million to pay the rent up front for new offices for the Grand Forks Housing Authority at the Lyons Auto Supply spot across from City Hall.

The other three projects have heftier price tags and murkier funding. They are a $50 million interchange where I-29 intersects with 47th Avenue , a $45 million railroad underpass at the intersection of 42nd Street and DeMers Avenue , and an inter-city bridge over the Red River that would cost between an estimated $35 million and $53 million, depending on its location and height, among other factors. City Administrator Todd Feland said the city is presuming the government will stick with a typical 80/20 cost split for those three projects, which would put the city’s total request for all five projects somewhere between $137 million and $155 million.

Across the river, East Grand Forks city staff submitted to Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., a nearly identical request for money for an inter-city bridge. The city did not ask for any further money from the program, but City Council members there also approved a resolution on April 6 that asks for federal bridge money and preemptively OK'd city staff to submit a request for it. They’ve also begun, perhaps prematurely, pushing for state funding in St. Paul .

The House Appropriations Committee in February and March put together guidelines for Community Project Funding, but the program is probably better known by another name: “earmarks,” the system by which members of Congress are able to ask for money for specific projects in their districts. It was designed to point federal money toward critical infrastructure projects, but also, in some instances, meant millions in wasteful public spending – Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere,” for instance – and, in one case, bribes in exchange for government contracts.

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A rare bipartisan effort in Congress banned earmarks in 2011, but members of the appropriations committee have brought the practice back this spring with new rules designed to make them more transparent , including a searchable database of submitted projects and random, mandatory audits of a sample of requests that end up receiving money.

Each member of Congress is allowed to submit up to 10 projects for earmark funding. They must submit those projects by the end of the week.

In late 2010, Grand Forks was in line for $1.5 million for its new water treatment plant, but senators then couldn’t agree on the merits of some of the 6,700 earmarks in a $1.3 trillion bill, torpedoing it . Congress agreed on the earmark ban about two months later.

The present day earmarks for which Grand Forks is asking are part of an “embarrassment of riches” for the city government there, City Administrator Todd Feland told Grand Forks City Council members earlier this month. Community Project Funding, a renewed surface transportation bill, an infrastructure spending plan, and a recent round of coronavirus aid could mean millions upon millions for the city and Grand Forks County.

“Earmarks in the past were a fantastic way to build collaboration among congresspeople, they had to work with one another to bring the pork to their district,” council member Bret Weber said. “This seems like just some guaranteed pork for your district, and we’ll find out what that’s all going to look like.”

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Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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