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WNY projects stall as GOP-led House won't deliver pork ; $32 million in federal funding for area may be unavailable for at least 3 years

The federal financial lifeline that helped build the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and countless other local projects has been cut off -- for at least a year and most likely for at least three years.

"Earmarks," the congressionally directed federal projects decried by critics as pork-barrel spending, are no more, at least for now. The new Republican majority in the House has placed a moratorium on them.

In the short term, this means that money that once seemed on its way to the Buffalo area -- such as $9.5 million in improvements to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and several big projects for the Medical Campus -- has disappeared.

In total, Western New York will miss out on $32 million in federal funding that had been in the works this year.

And in the long run, it means that local institutions ranging from the Darwin Martin House to village governments will have to get used to a new era in which they can no longer just run to their member of Congress for cash.

"These are the kinds of investments that made the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus what it is today," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. "All kinds of beneficial growth is going to be held up. Where else do you go for funding?"

Of course, opponents of earmarks see things very differently.

"This is about [members of Congress] having control of a pool of money that is unaccountable," said Leslie K. Paige, media director for Citizens Against Government Waste. "It's about getting re-elected. And there's no oversight on these projects."

Members of Congress have been writing earmarks into spending bills for decades.

But the use of earmarks skyrocketed during the Republican-controlled Congress of a decade ago, leading to scandals such as Alaska's federally funded "bridge to nowhere" and the conviction and imprisonment of then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., on bribery charges.

When Democrats took over Congress in 2007, they vowed to stop giving out earmarks to private companies and to enact other reforms. But the criticism of earmarks continued as the federal deficit ballooned after the 2008 economic meltdown and the federal response to it, so Republicans decided to go cold turkey on earmarks in 2011 spending bills.

Since the departed Democratic-controlled Congress never finished work on those 2011 spending bills, they're now in the hands of the Republican-led House, which is following an earmark moratorium not just for 2011, but for the entire two years of the 112th Congress.

"Earmarks have become a symbol of a Congress that has broken faith with the people," the new House speaker, Republican John A. Boehner of Ohio, said recently. "This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington."

>'Thinking differently'

But that also means ending business as usual in Buffalo.

The Medical Campus had several big projects on tap for 2011 -- most notably $3.68 million for a molecular scanning device, called a cyclotron, at the University at Buffalo's Clinical and Translational Research Center.

University officials say they will now have to seek funding for such projects directly through federal agencies, a less reliable prospect than going through a well-connected federal lawmaker.

Matthew K. Enstice, executive director of the Medical Campus, said the campus is currently evaluating how to secure funding for projects in the wake of the earmark moratorium.

"The world has changed, so we know we need to start thinking differently about how we get things done," Enstice said.

Medical equipment and scientific research can be funded through the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.

But infrastructure projects -- such as $1 million in now-lost funding for streetscape improvements at the Medical Campus -- could be in more trouble. That's because there is no direct federal infrastructure program for such projects aside from earmarks; instead, federal funding would be funneled through -- and decided by -- the state government.

The other huge local recipient of earmarks, the Niagara air base, may be in more luck, simply because the Pentagon often decides on its own to recommend construction projects at military bases.

But Merrell A. Lane, who heads the Niagara Military Affairs Council, stressed that a healthy share of the $71.6 million in improvements at the base in recent years was the work of lawmakers, most notably Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.

"We would have continued to move along, but it would have been more slowly" without the earmarks Slaughter directed to the base, Lane said.

That's what will happen this year, as the base loses out on a $9.5 million earmark for a C-130 flight operations facility.

>Slaughter isn't happy

Slaughter, for one, is none too happy about it.

"These are not nameless projects, but investments that we, as legislators, believe will help rebuild the economy for our area," she said.

Even though earmarks make up less than half a percent of the federal budget, critics insist that lawmakers are by no means the best people to decide which projects should get federal funding.

"There will still be projects," said Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It's just going to not be funded on a political basis. It's going to be awarded on a merit-based criteria."

And by that standard, some local projects probably won't get funding.

For example, the Village of Barker started replacing its century-old water pipes with $748,000 in federal economic-stimulus money that Slaughter secured two years ago. But now, Mayor Jo Ann Greenwald said, the village is looking at borrowing upward of $800,000 to complete the project since Slaughter's earmark for additional funding has disappeared.

"There's no money anywhere," Greenwald said. "I think the only option we have is to go for a low-interest loan."

>Merit-based reviews

Similar trouble could be in store for highway and bridge projects, which Congress has long earmarked not only in annual spending bills, but in the huge highway authorization legislation that's up for renewal again this year.

Projects such as road and bridge improvements at Buffalo's waterfront then will have to rely on funding decisions made not in Washington, but in Albany, which decides how most of New York's federal highway money is spent.

And that's just fine with Paige, of Citizens Against Government Waste.

"Why should the taxpayers of Florida, Alaska and Michigan have to fund a waterfront that benefits the people of Buffalo?" she asked.

Paige fears, though, that Congress still may fall to the temptation to earmark, even if lawmakers don't call it that.

She noted, for instance, what Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, had to say on the topic recently. Reed, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters that he would push for federal funding for the continued expansion of Route 219 in the Southern Tier, a longtime beneficiary of earmark funding.

"The projects will come up, and they're going to be reviewed on their own merits," Reed said. "And what we would like to be is not a sponsor of those projects, but a voice that will advocate on behalf of why these projects are good, and why this investment of federal dollars and that infrastructure improvement is going to have a long-term return."

>Different approach

To Paige, however, that's just earmarking by another name.

"He's making noise that that is not an earmark," she said, "but it is an earmark, as far as we're concerned."

Reed insisted, though, that any improvements would not be billed as "Tom Reed's project on Route 219." And when he's asked for earmark funding from across his district, he said, "I tell them we just don't conduct our business that way any longer."

That's a good thing, said Rep. Chris Lee, R-Amherst. The top local recipient of earmarked House funding in his first year in Congress, Lee swore off them this year, as did the rest of the Republican caucus.

"For the most part, there has been very little pushback," Lee said. "People realize the election was a referendum on reckless spending."

One way to start cutting spending, he acknowledged, is to start with lawmakers' pet projects.

"To me, it's a mind-set," Lee said. "We need to start changing the way people think in Washington."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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Lost funding

The earmark ban affects these major WNY projects

• Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station $9.5 million

• Lake Ontario/Niagara River navigation $4.23 million

• Cyclotron at UB research center $3.68 million

• Statler transportation facility $3million

• Viral research at Hauptman-Woodward Institute $2 million

• Darwin Martin House improvements $1 million

• Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus streetscape improvements $1 million