Patty Murray: The Naked Truth

Could Washington go pork-free?

Alan Schreiber pulls up to the curb in a mud-splattered, green, four-door Ford pickup. Formerly on the faculty at Washington State University, where he researched pesticides, Schreiber now does consulting work throughout the state for people who have infestation problems. But his passion is his 156-acre farm outside Pasco, where he grows asparagus, among other crops. Schreiber also heads the state Asparagus and Blueberry Commissions, quasi-public entities that connect growers and the state to government.Despite having spent several years in academia, with all its alleged liberal bias, Schreiber's politics generally line up with the conservative-leaning part of the state in which he lives. "I voted for Reagan twice," he says. Tea Partier Clint Didier, who failed to advance to the general election, won Franklin County, where Schreiber's farm is located, in the August 17 primary for U.S. Senate with 50 percent of the vote. Three-term Democratic incumbent Patty Murray came in second with 24 percent; Republican challenger Dino Rossi was third with 22 percent.Don't expect many of those Didier votes to go to Murray in the Nov. 2 general election. "I work with a number of commodity groups in eastern Washington," Schreiber says. "Almost to a man—I don't want to sound sexist, but it's a male kind of world—they tend towards Republicans. And they strongly tend toward fiscal conservatism."Still, Schreiber says that, come November, Murray will at least get his vote. That's because the earmarks she sends home from the other Washington (D.C.) are the only thing keeping the state's once-thriving asparagus industry alive, according to Schreiber.In the mid-'90s, he explains, asparagus grew on more than 30,000 acres at some 300 farms. What's more, he says that asparagus is one of the most expensive crops to grow, requiring more people to harvest than other crops—an expensive proposition made even more so due to the state's high minimum wage, which became tied to inflation through a statewide voter initiative in 1998.According to the federal Department of Labor, Washington now has the highest minimum wage in the U.S. at $8.55 per hour. Because of that, Schreiber says local growers can't compete with farmers in other states or countries like Peru, where harvesters make as little as $5 per day. Unable to recoup the high cost, many local growers have given up. The vegetable is now farmed on only 7,000 acres, according to Schreiber.In order to be more competitive, he says, farmers still trying to make ends meet with asparagus crops decided to see if they could find a way to use fewer laborers. "The holy grail of the asparagus industry is to come up with a mechanical harvester," Schreiber says.Individual farmers didn't have the money or expertise to evaluate and build prototypes. So they went to Murray, looking for help paying for the research and materials. She came through, funneling more than $600,000 to the effort since 2001. Using the money and contributions from its members, the Asparagus Commission contracted with a Tri-Cities mechanical company called Mesa Machine and Welding to build a harvester, which has worked exactly as the growers intended. Thanks to that success, the Commission isn't requesting the earmark this year.Earmarks have become one of the most hotly debated topics in the race between Murray and Rossi. That's in part because Murray has snagged so many of them, managing to secure $219.5 million for 190 separate projects in Congress' final 2010 budget, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Murray has captured the ninth-highest earmark dollar amount of any senator, according to TCS, which has dubbed her "Pork Patty". (Washington's junior senator, Maria Cantwell, snagged about $89 million for 74 different projects over the same period of time.)Rossi has run with the "Pork Patty" moniker in campaign materials, claiming that Murray's affinity for earmarks is in part to blame for the nation's $13.6 trillion debt. Rossi also says that earmarks are essentially done in secret for the benefit of big donors. His campaign website includes a page titled "The Case Against Earmarks," where he points to high-profile cases where earmarks went to campaign donors' pet projects, including money for a short-lived Odyssey Maritime Heritage Museum on the downtown Seattle waterfront and speedboats built for the Navy by a Murray donor that the military neither requested nor used.But not all earmarks are multimillion-dollar gifts to campaign donors. In fact, the vast majority of Murray's $219.5 million haul went to people who didn't give her any money at all. Nor do the recipients have the money to hire lobbyists in Washington to convince a majority of Congress to back their projects.Murray isn't fighting the "Pork Patty" image. Instead she embraces earmarks, touting the money she brings into the state as a success. "I am proud to work hard in every community in this state to ask them what their needs are, and then go to fight within the budget process that we have to make sure the resources are here in Washington state," she said at a June press conference on the Olympia waterfront promoting a $1 million earmark she obtained to put toward a $10 million rebuild of the city's Percival Landing. The new park will include a bathhouse, pavilions, waterfront plants, and a rebuilt boardwalk extending out into Puget Sound.Murray's ability to bring home this kind of bacon has only increased as she's risen through the ranks of the Senate. Currently she is the fourth-ranking Democrat and chairs the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, so she has direct influence over what transportation projects receive funding.If you talk to people who benefit from these earmarks, it's easier to see why Murray might willingly call herself "Pork Patty." Recipients claim that without earmarks, dangerous roads wouldn't be improved, research necessary to keep eastern Washington farmers in business wouldn't get done, and clinics and homeless shelters to care for the rising number of people in poverty wouldn't be built or expanded."I think it's easy to stand afar and take shots at these earmarks," Schreiber says. "But when you dig down and get the story behind a lot of these earmarks, you find out that there's a lot of value and benefit."Earmarks are amendments that legislators can attach to spending bills for various federal departments, including agriculture, transportation, and defense. The bills, called appropriations, set each department's budget and specify where at least some of the money should be spent.Legislators can insert the amendments either directly into the bill, or have notes placed in committee reports on the bill that steer money to specific projects in their home states and districts. The money is then considered "earmarked." Getting an earmark requires only a written request by a member of Congress—it is then attached to a bill, and unless someone asks that it be removed in the committee process, stays with the bill until it goes before the full legislative body for a vote. There the bill as a whole is voted on or amended; the individual earmarks aren't up for debate.On his website, Rossi says the process lacks transparency. "Everything should be done in the normal budgeting process," says his spokesperson, Jennifer Morris.Overall, $37 billion in earmarks made it out of the 2009 Congressional session to be spent this year. It's a big dollar amount, but constitutes just over 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget.The problem with earmarks, says TCS spokesperson Steve Ellis, is that they tend to disproportionately go to politicians with enough seniority to have serious clout, who then direct the money back to their most loyal donors. Morris points to a highly publicized 2005 earmark totaling $17.65 million that Murray, along with Representatives Norm Dicks (D-Bremerton) and Brian Baird (D-Vancouver), finagled for a speedboat that the Navy did not request but was built by one of Murray's big financial backers, Guardian Marine International. The Seattle Times reported that after having determined no use for the boat, the Navy gave it to the University of Washington. The university didn't use it either, and it sat idle at a dock on Lake Union before the Navy ultimately gave it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle in 2007, according to the Times.That's not the only case of a donor benefiting from an earmark. This past June, TCS and the campaign money-tracker Center for Responsive Politics combined their databases to see how many campaign contributors have benefited from the earmarks funneled back to them by Washington's Congressional delegation. Employees from the Kennewick-based electronics company Infinia Corp. have given Murray $8,000 for her various campaigns, according to the CRP. This year, the company is benefiting from a $2.4 million earmark to build a power generator for the military. Employees of the Lynnwood-based engineering company Sound & Sea Technology gave Murray $4,000 for her current re-election campaign, and are now working on sensor systems to allow Navy ships to detect underwater threats, thanks to a $3.2 million earmark awarded last December.But the vast majority of earmarks go to people who haven't given anyone in Congress a dime.Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) is the most prone to doing favors for his donors, according to the CRP database. And even in his case, less than half of the money he brought home as pork went to financial backers—44 percent of the $173 million he wrangled. Murray ranks eighth overall in funneling cash to donors, yet only 18 percent of the money she obtained went back to companies whose executives or employees gave her campaign cash.In fact, more than half of Murray's earmarks were less than $1 million apiece and went to local nonprofits or governments that don't have the money to build their own facilities, let alone hire lobbyists or make significant political contributions.In 2008, the Northeast Community Center in Spokane received a $490,000 earmark for a 30,000-square-foot addition to its health clinic after a survey showed that 40,000 people living nearby lacked health insurance, according to Executive Director Jean Farmer. CRP's database of donors doesn't include Farmer, who laughs out loud when asked if her organization hired a lobbyist to help it get the money. "We don't do that," she says. "There's no way we could." Farmer says the center got the money by having Murray out for a site visit, and formally petitioning her staff for help.Similarly, Erin Black, executive director of the Yakima Valley YWCA, says that a 2009 earmark from Murray was essential to keep a roof over the heads of families who were hit hard by the recession.By 2008, the YWCA was turning away seven to 10 families every month from its Yakima shelter, which needed to be dramatically expanded. Like the Spokane community center, Black says the YWCA didn't have the money for a lobbyist. Instead the nonprofit went to Murray's website and found information on applying for help in the form of an earmark. Since 2009 Murray has steered $1.3 million to the project.According to Black, the entire project, which included expanding the shelter from 29 to 55 beds and building 16 longer-term housing units, cost nearly $10 million. But when looking for other grants, Black says, she needed to show that she already had significant financial commitments—like Murray's earmark, which helped the YWCA get another $2.7 million from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, as well as additional state funding. The money available also encouraged the local community to donate—the YWCA has raised another $2 million from area residents.Rossi claims that, if elected, he'll go vegan, forgoing any earmarks unless the federal budget is balanced, according to his spokesperson Morris. But that doesn't necessarily mean asparagus farmers will be left out in the cold. Morris insists that Rossi isn't against spending federal money on local projects, though she declined to comment on any of the projects listed in this story.Morris says that her candidate believes a project to dredge the mouth of the Columbia River, which in July learned that it would receive an $18 million earmark sponsored by Murray next year, is worth completing. It's the only project she mentions as worthy of federal funding.Rossi's primary problem is with the lack of transparency in the process, says Morris. In July, Rossi said on the ABC News political webcast "Top Line" that earmarking is done "in the dark of the night with one senator nudging another, saying 'I'll vote for your stuff if you vote for mine.' "His complaints about transparency aren't unfounded, just outdated. It used to be that legislators didn't have to automatically attach their names to earmark requests. But in 2006, Congress passed a bill requiring earmarks to be sponsored, just like other legislation. Senators and representatives also now have to list earmarks on their websites; no longer can they slide a favor into a bill without people noticing.Murray campaign spokesperson Julie Edwards points out that the senator, along with 89 of her colleagues, supported the change. The legislation made creating comprehensive databases of earmarks substantially easier, and now TCS has downloadable spreadsheets on its website of every earmark in Congress dating back to 2008. The White House also makes earmark databases available.Ironically, as a legislator, Rossi seems to have had no problem with sending money to specific cities for new after-school programs or agriculture research. The 2003 state operating budget, which he takes credit for writing, includes long lists of projects that were inserted by members of the legislature looking to guarantee money for their district. Known as "locally targeted investments," the spending sounds a lot like earmarking.Included in the 2003 budget was $225,000 for a pilot project cultivating geoducks grown in south Puget Sound. Another $197,000 went to a wine-making program at WSU. The 2003 budget also included $10 million sent to towns and counties, revealing only the dollar amount—not what the money would be used for. Reporter Les Blumenthal tracked some of that money in a piece in The Olympian, finding a portion went to a pirate-themed water park in Asotin County and $600,000 for a new dock at a waterfront park in Rossi's district.The federal earmarking process "is not dissimilar to the process used in Washington state at the state level, and [Rossi] has no problem with that," Edwards says.In fact, with the money for targeted investments included in the budget document itself, as Rossi would like to do at the federal level, it is harder to tell who is asking for money than in Congress. In D.C., legislators have to say on their own websites how money they are requesting in the form of earmarks, and what it will be used for. Not so in Olympia, where the money simply shows up as an allocation to the city or county where it's being directed."Those aren't earmarks," Rossi spokesperson Morris insists, when asked about the locally targeted investments, though she declines to comment on why they can't be considered similar.Five miles east of Port Angeles, Deer Park Road intersects with Highway 101. Once upon a time it was a rarely-used rural stretch, but over the past decade, businesses and residential developments have transformed it into a critical commuter artery.Most of the people who live near Deer Park Road work in Port Angeles. That means that during the morning commute, they have to turn left from Deer Park Road onto 101. There is no stoplight, and its location on a hill makes it hard to see oncoming traffic, which barrels toward the intersection at 45 miles per hour."It's just 'wait for an opening in the traffic and take your life into your hands,' " says Clallam County engineer Ross Tyler. But with wait times reaching three minutes, he adds, people get impatient and make a run for it. "And too many times they lose," adds Tyler.Over the course of a decade, the intersection has seen 37 accidents and four deaths. With additional residential development planned near Deer Park Road, Tyler says, the county had to do something to allow people to safely turn left without stopping the flow of traffic. So Tyler and his staff developed a plan for a $7 million underpass. Henceforth, cars that need to turn left would go underneath 101 and merge in the right-hand lane, rather than darting across.The only problem the county had was paying for it. With a tax base of about 70,000 residents, $7 million is close to Clallam's annual roads budget. The county could have paid for the project out of pocket, "but when we finished, we'd have to fire everybody and stop plowing roads," says Tyler.Tyler says he understands where the anti-earmark sentiment comes from. "We all hear of pork-barrel projects and the bridges in Alaska that go to islands in the middle of nowhere. [But the 101 underpass] is one that is a lifesaver, literally in terms of human life, and figuratively in terms of the fact that a county of this size, with our limited income, would just not be able to afford to do it."County transportation manager Rich James says the county doesn't have the money to hire lobbyists. Instead, James took advantage of trips Murray made to his district while he was seeking federal help. Twice she visited the dangerous intersection."She actually saw the three crosses across the road," James says. "I think that's what convinced her that this was a worthy project." Murray ultimately directed $871,000 to the project, with most of the remainder of the tab coming from other competitive federal grants. The underpass is scheduled for completion at the end of this year.Following Sept. 11, 2001, Whatcom County found itself in similar shallow-pocketed straits. After the terrorist attacks, the number of Customs and Border Protection agents living and working in Whatcom County ballooned from 35 to more than 350, thanks to increased pressure to keep the homeland safe—a rallying cry for conservatives in the years following those tragedies.The agents' primary purpose is protecting against terrorist attacks, but with so many additional law enforcement agents, arrests for smaller crimes like drug possession jumped. Beyond the initial arrest, the feds don't handle the cases of those minor criminals, county Deputy Administrator Dewey Desler explains. Instead, "they take just the big fish."Responsibility to incarcerate, investigate, prosecute, and—if someone doesn't have the money to pay for it—defend the more minor criminal element trapped at the border falls to Whatcom County, which has 200,000 permanent residents—not a large enough tax base to support ballooning court costs, claims Desler.The backlog of cases started to increase, so the county went to the feds looking for help. Since 2008, the county has received almost $1.7 million in earmarks, secured by Murray and Congressman Rick Larsen (D-Lake Stevens), to hire additional staff and attorneys to process cases more quickly. Prior to getting the earmarks, the wait time between a jury convicting someone in Whatcom County and a judge handing down his sentence was about 280 days—longer than some people's sentences would ultimately be. Now it's down to around a month.Transparency isn't Rossi's only complaint about the earmarking process. According to Morris, Rossi is frustrated that once an earmark gets into an appropriation bill, other senators can't get it cut without voting against the entire piece of legislation. He wants projects that are traditionally funded through earmarks to be included in the budget itself, and therefore subject to an individual up-or-down vote.That might, however, be a bit impractical. In all, 11,859 earmarks were attached to the 2010 budget bills. But leaving aside the feasibility of voting on each one individually, Schreiber, who worked in D.C. for the Environmental Protection Agency prior to taking a job at WSU, is sure money for an asparagus harvester would never pass the full Senate.Currently, says Schreiber, there are only three states where asparagus is a crop with any commercial significance: Washington, California, and Michigan. So that would be six votes. Throw in a few more sympathetic senators from states with heavy agriculture, and it still wouldn't be anywhere close to the necessary 51 to get money for such a project."That's because they don't understand," Schreiber says, adding that "they'll want the money for their state."Another state agricultural group tried to get research funding put into the budget itself so it would be part of the regular process, just like Rossi wants it. Thomas Mick is CEO of the Washington Grain Alliance, which represents wheat farmers east of the Cascades. Since 2003, the Alliance and Washington State University have received $725,000 in congressional earmarks sponsored by Murray, fellow Senator Maria Cantwell, and Representatives Dicks and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Spokane). The money has gone toward research for "perennial wheat."Currently, Mick explains, wheat must be replanted every year; it doesn't grow back on its own. The Grain Alliance hopes to genetically create wheat that doesn't require the time and expense of replanting, something every grower wants in order to be more globally competitive. But local farmers don't have the money to support research themselves.Mick and other members of the Alliance meet with other wheat growers in D.C. every year. He says they have tried to convince the White House, under various presidents and parties, to include agricultural research as a line item in the budget itself. (The executive branch of government proposes the first version of the budget.)"But every year the President doesn't put [ag research] in his budget," Mick says. "So legislators have to add it back." news@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus