Central Valley

Congressman vows to shun earmarks

WASHINGTON -- A fight over congressional earmarks divides San Joaquin Valley lawmakers and could put some regional projects in a bind.

Putting no money where his mouth is, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, told visiting Tulare County officials on Thursday that he would only request federal funding for projects Congress has authorized.

Unauthorized projects will be left to fend for themselves.

"Until this process is reformed, it's not worth participating in," Nunes said of the annual exercise in requesting spending earmarks.

Definitions vary, but earmarks are generally recognized as targeted spending for projects serving a specific region.

Nunes is not committing himself to total budget abstinence. He assured Tulare County officials he still will seek funding for projects Congress has previously authorized, including improvements to Highway 99 and studies of Success Dam's future.

Still, Nunes' self-imposed earmark restraint goes further than many other lawmakers, including his fellow House Republicans who cast a symbolic anti-earmark vote Thursday.

It also comes as San Joaquin Valley county delegations begin their annual Capitol Hill lobbying campaigns, many built around specific funding requests that could put individual lawmakers on the spot.

"Somewhere down the road, I think we're going to have a lot of needs," said Michael Santana, a Farmersville City Council member.

Santana was one of about two dozen city, county and business leaders participating in this week's Tulare County Association of Governments lobbying trip. Next week, Fresno County leaders will follow suit.

Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties will likewise convey their wish lists to Capitol Hill later this year.

Typically, the county delegations unite around 10 or so projects for which they seek funding and the support of local lawmakers.

Some projects already will have been authorized, such as the Highway 99 improvements included in a big highway bill several years ago. Other projects come out of the blue.

Merced County officials, for instance, have previously sought $400,000 in federal funds for an "engineering academy" proposed to be built at the county's Buhach Colony High School site.

Similarly, Fresno County representatives next week will seek support for a $1.5 million anti-gang grant.

Nunes' office considers these earmarks and will not request the funding; the Merced County project, in any event, is not in his congressional district.

Nunes maintains the Valley will fare better overall if money is distributed by merit rather than by congressional pull.

His Valley colleagues say they support earmark reform, but they don't want to stop asking for local funds.

"If there's a good reason for the project, and the community supports it, Mr. Cardoza will support it," said Jamie McInerney, spokesman for Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno likewise will "not unilaterally disarm" by refusing to ask for local funding, said Costa's chief of staff, Scott Nishioki. Cardoza and Costa require local project supporters to answer numerous questions designed to select the strongest projects.

Earmark reform has become a recurring message for Republican leaders hoping to challenge Democratic control of Congress, although earmarks grew in both number and notoriety under prior Republican rule.

As part of the symbolic maneuvering, the House on Thursday rejected by a largely party-line 204-196 vote a GOP bid to impose a yearlong earmark moratorium.

Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, joined Nunes in voting for the House-wide earmark moratorium. However, Radanovich will keep asking for earmarks he considers necessary.