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CONGRESS: Earmark cuts may hurt UND

They say in Washington that one person's pork is another person's vital project. So, while the new Democratic majority in Congress has won wide support for its pledge to reduce earmarked projects during its first 100 hours in office, some in Nort...

They say in Washington that one person's pork is another person's vital project.

So, while the new Democratic majority in Congress has won wide support for its pledge to reduce earmarked projects during its first 100 hours in office, some in North Dakota, including a few at UND, are worried their earmarked projects may not survive the housecleaning.

UND and its related agencies were slated to receive more than $7 million this year in earmarked funds from appropriations bills that were left unpassed by the 109th Congress. Now, the 110th Congress is in a hurry to pass those leftover bills, but with a more critical eye on earmarked funding.

UND's earmarks include money for the school's Indians into Medicine program, the Center for Rural Health and for the Energy & Environmental Research Center. And those earmarks represent only a small portion of the several hundred million in legislatively directed funding secured for projects by North Dakota's congressional delegation during 2006. Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based nonprofit group, estimated a total $29 billion in earmarked funding nationwide in the last Congress' versions of 2007 appropriations bills.

Chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees agreed to a moratorium on earmarks in 2007, and Democrats in both houses have pledged to clean up earmark practices during the next term.

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Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said there's a strong possibility the earmark moratorium will apply only to projects that were not funded in previous years. That means funding will likely still come through for EERC projects and about three-quarters of the INMED funding.

More likely to face the chopping block, however, are the remaining $300,000 of INMED funds, $300,000 toward the biolab component of UND's new Center of Excellence in Life Sciences and Advanced Technologies and $500,000 for UND's Center for Rural Health. Some of that Rural Health money was slated for a program to aid veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their families.

Earmarks that support research into unmanned aerial vehicle technology and an ROTC helicopter flight training program at UND's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences are safe, for this year, at least. They were included in a defense appropriations bill that passed successfully before Christmas.

"I remain hopeful we can continue to make these investments at UND," Dorgan said. "These are investments for the country, such as research in alternative energy and research in UAVs that will strengthen and benefit the entire country."

Staffing cuts

INMED Director Eugene DeLorme said it is unlikely the remaining earmarked funding for his program will come through. Dorgan inserted that $300,000 earmark as a stopgap measure after the Department of Health and Human Services drastically reduced the scope of a program from which INMED had traditionally drawn about $650,000 annually.

DeLorme is now facing a reduction of about 50 percent in his annual budget. If funding doesn't come through, he said, INMED must eliminate several summer programs for young students, drastically reduce other services and cut staff by 50 percent.

"The reality is, the ultimate loser in this whole thing is going to be the rural communities that end up not having health care professionals to serve their needs," DeLorme said. "That's going to be felt. . . . It's a very difficult and stressful time to be trying to work in a program that's not adequately funded."

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Officials from the Center for Rural Health were unable to verify details of their $500,000 earmark Friday. EERC officials would not comment on the status of their earmarked projects.

Ethical reforms

About 3 percent of funding in federal appropriations bills goes to earmarked projects across the country, Dorgan said. The remainder is distributed through federal agencies.

The practice of earmarking has come under fire recently because of ethically questionable practices by some legislators, such as concealing their sponsorship of earmarked projects and even trading earmarks for bribes and favors.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for earmarks. Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, sponsored an earmark to build a $941 million bridge from the Alaska mainland to Gravina Island, with a population of fewer than 50 people.

Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., both said they support reforms to limit earmarks and make the practice more transparent, but also believe legislatively directing funding to particular projects can have positive results.

A proposal passed Friday by the U.S. House requires legislators to disclose their earmarked projects. Legislators have pledged to reduce earmarks in the future and make the process more transparent.

"What we've seen in the past few years is a proliferation of earmarks," Pomeroy said, "and in many instances, the author of the earmark is not identified. And there's been no prohibition on personal interest flowing back from a particular earmark. . . .

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"In North Dakota, we use earmarks to fund the state, but we're totally transparent. We're not trying to stuff earmarks into bills for paying friends. We're trying to advance the universities and other things, and we're proud of every contribution we're able to make in terms of bringing federal money into the state."

Funding priorities

Pomeroy said most earmarks that benefit North Dakota have arisen from funding disagreements between the president and Congress.

"The earmarks we do raise in the Appropriations Committee are strong projects we fight for, things that haven't been funded by the administration in one way or another. For example, agricultural research has taken a tremendous hit. This administration walked away from the future of agriculture by de-funding ag research. We can't have that, so we fight for it in Appropriations."

Mark Jendrysik, chair of the UND political science department, said earmarks are unlikely to disappear permanently, regardless of which party is in power.

"One thing members of Congress exist to do is bring money back to their districts," he said. "If they don't, then they're falling down on the job. A state like North Dakota needs every cent it can get, and if our congressional delegation failed to do that, it would be a reason not to re-elect them. . . .

"I'd say, given their minority status, they've done a pretty good job about getting money and projects back to the state," he said. "Now that they're in the majority, they should do better."

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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