The nine Democratic members of the U.S. House from Massachusetts have requested a total of nearly $100 million in federal funding for local projects, ranging from education and human services to drinking water and climate resilence.
During periods of Republican control over the last two decades, the House has banned earmarks for local projects, provisions often secretly slipped into the spending bills. The practice gained a bad reputation for funding wasteful, self-serving projects that were labelled pork, a name drawn from the barrel of meats that was passed around to slaves. Some campaign donors were suspected to have traded contributions for earmarks.
But the House Democratic leadership is allowing earmarks this year, with new requirements that lawmakers disclose their requests, declare they have no financial interests in the projects and submit no more than 10 to the House Appropriations Committee, which drafts annual spending bills. What are now being called “community projects” can only be directed to government agencies or nonprofits.
“As long as safeguards are in place for the earmarks process and there are transparency standards, this new process should be given a chance to work,” said Aaron Scherb, legislative director for Common Cause in Washington.
Historically, earmarks have helped grease the legislative process, winning votes on bills in exchange for projects that members can tout to their constitutents. “Utlimately, members of Congress should know what the local funding needs are better than the executive branch,” he said.
Every member of the state’s delegation requested the maximum number of projects by deadlines last week, for a total of 90 statewide amounting to $98 million. The biggest single ask comes from Rep. Bill Keating of Bourne, who is seeking $5 million for an Offshore Wind Institute at Bristol Community College in Fall River.
The second largest is the $4 million that Rep. Katherine Clark of Melrose requested for a mass transit center at Wonderland in Revere linking the Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail trains to the Blue Line and buses. As assistant speaker and a member of the Appropriations Committee, she has a better chance of seeing her projects incorporated into spending bills. Overall, her proposed earmarks have a green focus, such as $750,000 for Arlington to plan for climate resilience along the Mystic and Charles rivers.
First-term Rep. Jake Auchincloss of Newton asked for the most overall, $15 million, while Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, sought the least, about $6 million. Keating’s $14 million was the second most.
Drinking water is a theme in Auchincloss’ requests, with four projects costing a total of about $7 million designed to expand supplies. The funds would improve a reservoir dam in Somerset, replace wells in Norton, expand a treatment plant in Plainville and build a centralized one in Medway.
Neal’s list, by contrast, reflects a focus on human services. He has asked for $200,000 for patient simulators to train nurses at Berkshire Community College and $450,000 for upgrades at Camp Atwater, a children’s summer camp operated by the Springfield Urban League. Another $100,000 would support the Franklin County Opioid Task Force.
The two members who represent parts of Boston, Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Stephen Lynch, differ in their approach. Four of Pressley’s requests relate to education, including a $1 million expansion of free community college for city residents. She also asked for about $1 million to expand separated bike lanes in Cambridge.
Lynch’s requests are mixed in their focus — $1.8 million to prevent rising sea levels in Dorchester Bay from flooding Joe Moakley Park in South Boston to almost $1.4 million to design a new building for the nursing school at nearby UMass Boston in Dorchester.
Other notable projects requested include:
— Rep. Jim McGovern seeks about $1 million to expand early college for high school students at Worcester State University.
— Rep. Lori Trahan of Westford asks for $750,000 to rennovate and replace bleachers at Edward LeLacheur Park, where UMass Lowell’s baseball team and the minor league Spinners play.
— Rep. Seth Moulton wants $1.2 million for design and engineering work to finish sections of the Border to Boston Trail from New Hampshire through Boxford, Georgetown, Newbury, Marblehead and Peabody.
Members of the state delegation have posted lists of their requests on their official websites, with explanations of the public purpose of the projects and declarations of no financial interest. Local governments and nonprofits submitted their proposed projects to their representatives for review.
Congress has a Sept. 30 deadline to approve 13 spending bills before the new fiscal year begins but in recent years has frequently missed that target.