When I was elected to the legislature in 1978, I received appointments to a pair of House Committees: Transportation & Energy and Business Affairs & Labor. I can’t recall whether I requested those assignments or, as an incoming freshman, simply accepted the luck of the draw. I joined Republican Anne Gorsuch as the second Mountain Bell employee serving in the Colorado House. Committees of interest played a far more active role in setting state spending priorities than they do today. The Highway Commission met jointly with the Senate and House Transportation committees to finalize the following year’s highway budget they submitted to the Joint Budget Committee, which was still relatively new and prone to defer to their recommendations. A decade later budgeting would be entirely controlled by the JBC.
I was surprised when Republican Bill Hillman, the House Transportation chairman, informed me I could submit a modest earmark in the 1979 appropriation for my district in Northwest Denver. This was a courtesy/privilege extended to members of the transportation committees. As a candidate, I’d heard plenty from residents about the infernal traffic roar thrown off by I-70, which had been punched through existing neighborhoods a decade previously. A blue-collar area, my constituents frequently grumbled about why wealthier neighborhoods along I-25 in Southeast Denver were receiving sound walls while North Denver was ignored. I requested $4-5 million spread over the following two years to erect sound barriers between Pecos Street and Sheridan Boulevard. This budgeting victory pleased both those living near the highway and their state representative.
Prior to the congressional decision outlawing earmarks, there was a joke in in Washington that members are, by inclination, either legislators or appropriators. No better proof of this is needed than a trip across West Virginia, where Robert Byrd’s name appears on more bridges, highways, schools, federal buildings — even the FBI fingerprint bureau — than a traveler can count. Together with Republican Peter Domenici of New Mexico, this pair served as ranking members of the Senate Budget Committee for more than 20 years, earning Domenici the nickname “Saint Peter” in the Land of Enchantment. New Mexico consistently ranked first among the states for its return on federal tax dollars received per capita. Only in retrospect has it become evident this overreliance on federal spending badly distorted our neighbor’s state economy.
During the early ‘90s when I was working on nuclear waste issues, I frequently met with Domenici's staff and they would rib me about how much they appreciated Colorado’s Republican senators. Both were opposed to the earmark process and often declined to secure dollars for Colorado projects. “That just means more dollars for Pete,” his staff would chuckle. Several years later, when Ben Nighthorse Campbell was given a seat on Senate Appropriations as a reward for switching parties, I was conducting the monorail feasibility study for the I-70 mountain corridor. I approached Ben to arrange an earmark to underwrite our participation in a USDOT Urban MAGLEV grant program. Living on the Western Slope, Campbell was immediately sympathetic with this initiative.
In 1998 "blacktop" Bill Owens, who once famously remarked, “Every dime spent on transit is a wasted dime,” was elected governor. I still remember the late-night phone call I received from Ben telling me he had successfully slipped a $3 million earmark into the transportation funding bill for us. Then he added, “Miller, please do me a favor. Don’t issue a press release thanking me for securing your grant money. Better yet, don’t say anything publicly about how your grant was funded. You applied. You were selected. End of story.” After thanking him profusely for his assistance, I assured Ben we would honor his request. Was there anything corrupting about the earmark process — something intrinsically unethical or immoral? Obviously, such a mechanism can be abused, but there also is something to be said for "local knowledge."
I’m reminded of a story about Mayor Daley, which may be apocryphal but is also surely true. Daley allegedly once bragged, “Everyone in Chicago knows we steal 1% or 2% of their money, but they also know the other 98 cents are well spent!” Earmarks often provide the grease that keeps the wheels of government turning smoothly. Colorado’s congressional Republicans are refusing to submit requests for earmarks, as a matter of principle, now that Congress has reauthorized them. This isn’t an instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, which merely injures oneself, but a case of misplaced rectitude and false virtue that penalizes the voters they ostensibly represent — a dereliction of duty.
Surely there’s a problem intersection or a new firehouse needed in each of their districts. Colorado’s Congressional Democrats are submitting more than $20 million in requests. If they deliver the bacon, voter confidence will grow that not every federal dollar is wasted.