WASHINGTON The new Democratic Congress is cracking down on the controversial federal spending "earmarks" that led to scandals last year and that means some cherished Buffalo projects will likely have to make due with less federal money.
Democrats have vowed to produce an earmark-free spending plan to cover the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, and sources said that will stretch the already long odds that work will begin soon on a new $123 million federal courthouse in Buffalo.
It also means the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, the Calspan-University at Buffalo Research Center and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority will likely lose out on millions in expected funding.
"I don't expect that there will be any earmarks in the continuing resolution" that Congress is expected to pass in February to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. "The House Democratic majority is now going to look at a number of reform measures before it considers earmarks."
That's bad news for a community that has long loved to feed at the federal pork barrel.
Former Rep. Henry J. Nowak, D-Buffalo, got nicknamed "the billion-dollar man" for his penchant for bringing home federal dollars.
And in recent years, Buffalo has teamed up with Erie County and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to press Congress for millions in aid for special projects. Most notably, Buffalo's Center for Excellence in Bioinformatics received $27 million over four years, exceeding its five-year goal by so much so that it didn't seek any 2007 earmarks.
Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer got $83.4 million in Buffalo courthouse funding set aside in the Senate's version of the spending bill covering transportation and U.S. Treasury projects this year.
But that bill died -- along with 10 of the other spending bills that Congress usually passes -- when the 109th Congress adjourned in December.
And that means the courthouse funding now will be back in the hands of the General Services Administration, which had delayed all courthouse construction nationwide as part of a rent dispute with the U.S. judiciary.
"I didn't know about the elimination of earmarks," said U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, who's shepherding the local court project. "I must say, though, everyone's still optimistic."
That's because Buffalo remains at the top of the list of federal courthouses to be built and because President Bush could include funding for it in his fiscal 2008 budget proposal, which will be released Feb. 5.
Skretny wasn't alone in not knowing about the moratorium on earmarks. Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said local lawmakers hadn't informed the group of the change, either.
The change stems from the scandal-plagued, Republican-controlled 109th Congress. Most notably, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., is in federal prison after pleading guilty to getting earmarks for a defense contractor in exchange for bribes.
On top of that, it was revealed that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, had won $223 million in funding for a bridge between two Alaska communities with a total population of 8,050. In contrast, the Peace Bridge won $25 million in that same bill.
Congress later repealed funding for Alaska's so-called "bridge to nowhere," but nonetheless, such embarrassments are prompting the Democrats to abandon all the earmarks the Republicans had set aside in the 2007 spending bills that they had failed to pass.
"Earmarking has spiraled out of control in recent years and has fueled many of the major corruption scandals plaguing this body," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport. "Well, those days are over. We won't have any more members writing earmarks that benefit them personally. And we won't tolerate any more bridges to nowhere."
In recent years, controversial earmarks were often slipped into bills late in the process, going unnoticed until after they became law. To make sure that doesn't happen again, the House approved changes -- introduced by Slaughter, chairwoman of the Rules Committee -- that will allow earmarks again in the 2008 spending bills, but only if they are fully disclosed before the House votes on them.
"My one-word reaction to these earmark transparency rules compared to previous efforts: better," said Steve Ellis, vice president of programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group. "They are not perfect by any stretch, and I have every confidence that some crafty lawmakers and lobbyists will find ways to skirt and undermine the rules, but the definition of earmark is relatively broad and encompassing."
>Reapplying for funds
Many local entities that have received earmarks said they would seek them again in 2008 under the new rules. But they're probably going to have to go without for the rest of fiscal 2007.
For example, the $7.8 million second phase of a new visiting officers' quarters now appears to be on hold at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
"Obviously, we're disappointed, but the project is important enough that it eventually will be taken care of," said Merrell Lane, who heads the Niagara Military Affairs Council, which lobbies for funding for the base.
Meanwhile, the Calspan-UB Research Center will likely face a $4 million budget gap because of lost earmarks, even though it received $6 million in a defense spending bill the last Congress passed.
"It means we'll have to find the money somewhere else," said Thomas McMahon, the Research Center's president and chief executive officer. And while the loss of funding won't lead to the elimination of any of the center's 90 jobs, "it makes our need for hiring slightly less."
Then again, a $450,000 lost earmark is the least of the problems facing Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Roswell Park receives most of its funding from competitive federal grants that, unlike earmarks, are based on merit. Roswell Park received $54 million in such funding in last year's spending bills.
"We're minimally dependent on earmarks," said David C. Hohn, president and chief executive officer at Roswell Park.
For that reason, Hohn said he would much rather see the new Congress focus on passing its spending bills on time, so the money Roswell Park earned won't be held back.