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Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom^^Paul Hodes speaks to the editorial board at The Telegraph Wednesday, October 11.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hodes: I’m done with earmarking

U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes announced Monday that he will no longer request federal money to finance projects in New Hampshire that benefit businesses, hospitals, police departments and colleges.

Hodes, a Democrat, said the appropriations process also known as earmarking is broken because many lawmakers abuse the system. He cited the poor economy and federal deficit as other reasons behind his newly adopted stance.

But Hodes denied that he is forgoing earmarking because he is running for U.S. Senate and stepping away from the controversial issue could benefit him politically, as the state Republican Party immediately claimed.

“There’s nothing I can do that my opponent will say nice things about me. The toughest thing politically for me is not the other side but the people who will be disappointed,” Hodes said in a telephone interview.

Those disappointed people will include those behind the dozens of companies, health agencies, conservation groups, municipalities and other public and private entities that have received federal money the past three years because of Hodes-stamped earmarks.

The Adult Learning Center in Nashua, for one, received a $97,000 earmark a few years ago thanks to Hodes. The money kept a literacy program alive for an extra 18 months while the staff tried to locate other forms of funding, the center’s executive director, Mary Jordan, said.

Losing Hodes as an earmark advocate is “disappointing,” particularly since ALC might someday seek federal funding for construction projects, Jordan said. But life brings changes, and ALC will have to adapt, she said.

Those seeking earmarks still can solicit the state’s other House representative, Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat, and U.S. Sens. Judd Gregg, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat.

They and other members of Congress decide each year how tax dollars should be spent, allocating funds to various Executive Branch agencies and also earmarking some of that money for their own states.

Critics of earmarks claim they are nothing more than pork-barrel spending items aimed at pleasing constituents back home. But advocates, particularly lawmakers, argue that earmarks justifiably finance worthwhile projects that otherwise would not receive help from federal agencies.

“I know there are going to be folks disappointed,” Hodes said. “On the other hand, people will understand it’s time for the federal government to tighten its belt just like every household in New Hampshire.”

Earmarks have come under fire because some legislators accept donations from the people whose companies and organizations benefited from the appropriations, creating a “pay to play” game affecting the use of public money. Hodes last year proposed a bill that would have banned lawmakers from accepting political donations from the companies and lobbyists for whom they have secured earmarks.

“The bill has had some sponsors, but for whatever reason, the leadership hasn’t chosen to run (with) it,” Hodes said Monday.

As the process to start crafting the fiscal year 2011 budget approaches, Hodes said he decided to not earmark money because of those ethical issues and the need for fiscal austerity. He said he will also call on fellow members of Congress to end the practice.

Until now, Hodes hadn’t shied away from requesting appropriations despite his stated objection to abuses in the system.

For fiscal year 2010, Hodes last year submitted 64 earmarks totaling $230 million to House subcommittees, according to a Telegraph review of spending requests by New Hampshire’s four federal legislators.

The Telegraph has yet to calculate the legislators’ final total of earmarks approved for FY2010, but not every lawmaker’s request survives subcommittee scrutiny.

For fiscal year 2009, Congress approved 31 of Hodes’ earmarks, which totaled $35.6 million, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. And for fiscal year 2008, Hodes secured $37.7 million through 37 earmarks for New Hampshire projects, according to a Telegraph review.

That Telegraph study of 2008 earmarks found Hodes had accepted some donations from a PAC group and two lobbyists that were connected to earmarks he sponsored. After being asked by The Telegraph about them, he said he didn’t realize the donations had come from earmark recipients and that he returned them.

Since then, Hodes has stressed he has a policy of not accepting donations from those connected to earmarks that bear his name.

Republicans pounced on Hodes’ announcement Monday. Ryan Williams, communications director for the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, called Hodes’ new policy “a desperate campaign ploy to distract from his abysmal fiscal record.”

Williams said Hodes backed a “boondoggle” stimulus package, supports a fiscally irresponsible health care plan and has secured millions in earmarks – making the announcement a “hollow political campaign year stunt.”

Williams said he couldn’t speak about the positions on earmarks held by Republicans seeking election. Hodes, who has represented the 2nd Congressional District since 2007, is seeking Gregg’s Senate seat in this year’s election.

Political analyst Dean Spiliotes said Hodes’ announcement is risky, but he is making it early enough in the campaign that many voters might not consider it a last-minute switch.

Republicans will criticize Hodes for previously requesting earmarks, but many people consider them to be a form of constituent service, said Spiliotes, who runs the Web site NHPoliticalCapital.com.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com