The Problem with Earmarks

Sometimes doing a good deed does not turn out all that well in the end. As the 2020 Florida Legislative Session begins, we need to discuss earmarks, those legislator-added line items to the state budget for transportation or other capital projects in a district or county. If your local state lawmaker asks you what projects you most need funded, and they manage to put them into the state budget, it might seem like a big win, but it can be a bad deal for Pinellas County and the region.

Image of Florida State Capitol, Tallahassee, Florida. Photo by Artie White, 2013. https://www.flickr.com/photos/artiewhite/17249458362/
Florida State Capitol, Tallahassee. Photo by Artie White, 2013.

I’ll explain.

Transportation funding is a process, requiring a little bit of art and science in a highly political environment. It demands attention to detail because the funding is made available by the federal and state government. There is a lot of public outreach and meaningful community input on the transportation projects we make a priority for that funding. Forward Pinellas crafts a five-year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) to address Pinellas County’s and the region’s mobility, access and safety needs, consistent with our long-term vision. We build the TIP each year by working with our local government partners and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to advance transportation projects through the phases of planning, design, right-of-way acquisition and construction.  We give a lot of attention to a project’s readiness for the phase of funding that’s needed.

We adopt both countywide and regional priority project lists that reflect that process and enjoy broad consensus. Projects can remain on the list for several years before construction is fully funded, but they move more quickly with a more predictable and stable process.  

When your state legislator puts a transportation project requested by a local government directly into the state budget, it can upset that carefully constructed work program.

  • Earmarks do not grow the funding pie. It might seem like “found money,” but the Legislature and Governor agree on an annual budget with a single line item for transportation. Most of the time, earmarks, along with all other transportation projects, come out of the state’s previously allocated transportation fund. So that earmarked local project is going to force another priority project out. The FDOT District 7 office has a small window of time to find money for earmarked projects, meaning they have to quickly focus on which projects to remove from the next year’s work program to find the $80 million or so in funding for the earmarks.
    In last year’s budget, a “goodwill” earmark meant the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority lost $1 million that was slated for replacing the aging and undersized transfer center in downtown Clearwater. Another earmark in Hillsborough County eliminated five other safety projects that FDOT had planned to fund. Earmarks are like jumping the line at the movie premier. They subvert the process and undermine the efforts of everyone who plays by the rules.
  • Florida’s governor has a line item veto authority over the state budget. If the governor vetoes the earmark project, that money is gone from the budget. Worse, FDOT is prohibited from working on the project that was vetoed for the next fiscal year. A vetoed earmark means less money in FDOT’s budget overall, and funding setbacks for transportation as a whole – not just the earmarked project. This can be a big problem for a project with some money already funded.
  • An earmark is a specific funding request that ultimately must fit into the established process for constructing a transportation project. So if there is a $10 million earmark “for construction of project X,” but the project still needs to complete design or have right-of-way acquired, the money cannot be used for those other purposes. It will sit until those phases are funded.
  • Often, an earmark project is something that could be funded from an existing program source. The Tampa Bay region leaves money on the table for Safe Routes to School and Highway Safety Improvement Program projects because there are not enough local government applications for those funds. Florida must return that money to the federal government if it is unused. An earmark may be the “easier path” but only by following the legitimate process can we get the full value of our taxes to build our transportation system efficiently and effectively.

Forward Pinellas has an annual consultation with local governments to find projects to be included in the TIP priority lists. We will work with local governments, the general public, non-profit organizations and private entities to make sure the idea or need is moved efficiently through the state or federal process to get money that benefits our residents, commuters, visitors and businesses. Let’s commit to working together within the process, using art and science, to deliver a safe and well-connected transportation system for Pinellas County and Tampa Bay.

2 Responses to “The Problem with Earmarks”

  1. Gloria A Lepik-Corrigan

    Thank you for this wonderful description of how things work (and don’t work).

    Reply
  2. Neil C McMullen

    Excellent! I hope this piece is sent by multiple individuals to their/our legislators to remind them that “doing favors” in the transportation arena for a constituent is almost always a “0 Sum” treat.

    One additional comment: In addition to the professional and experienced Forward Pinellas (MPO) staff and the “decision making” Forward Pinellas Board, TIPs (and all other transportation/transit and associated land use matters) come under review by a CITIZEN group named the Citizens Advisory Committee – per Federal law! This group studies and discusses TIPs as time brings these and other plans forward for review. CAC then makes recommendations to staff and Board. Pinellas citizens should know that the CAC represents the citizen “users and affecteds’” interests in transportation/transit/land use matters.

    In short, when TIP plans are published, they have been exhaustively considered and reviewed with the “big picture” in mind. Mark-ups by nature are “small picture” and can negatively impact a network of interlocking long range plans based on a strategic vision. Rational and careful planning is a basic necessity to transportation success!

    Reply

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