It would be a first for Oro Valley.
Possibly succumbing to the lure of almighty federal earmarks, Oro Valley leaders on Wednesday could decide whether to hire a lobbyist tasked with directing dollars from Washington, D.C., according to town documents.
Those promises of no-strings-attached federal funding hold an enticing power over local governments and institutions.
The terms “pork-barrel spending” and “earmarks” refer to uncompetitive federal grants that lawmakers slip into legislation, often to help pay for public building projects or to benefit industries in their home districts.
This year, federal lawmakers have funneled more than $17 billion to their home districts through earmarks. More than $9 billion in earmarks are still pending because beneficiaries have not yet been identified, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget.
“This is one more (funding) option that the town can explore,” Oro Valley Town Manager David Andrews said.
If the council approves hiring a lobbyist, the town would be following suit with most other governments in the region, including Tucson, Pima County and Marana.
The University of Arizona and Pima Community College also have lobbyists working on their behalf in nation’s capital.
The amount of federal money at Congress’ disposal could grow substantially in the coming years.
President-elect Barack Obama is considering an economic stimulus package worth as much as $500 billion, much of it directed toward infrastructure projects, to aid the ailing economy.
Oro Valley officials would want to get in line now for the money that would fund long-anticipated roadway-improvement plans.
Roadway improvements are a common target for funding.
Earlier this year, Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, whose district includes Oro Valley and Marana, secured $1.5 million for Marana’s Twin Peaks Interchange project.
The congresswoman also scored more than $4.5 million for Tucson’s Houghton Road widening project.
“If this was all for infrastructure, that would make sense,” Oro Valley Town Councilman K.C. Carter said.
But when it comes to getting federal funds for other projects, Carter isn’t sure the town should spend its money on a lobbyist.
Earlier this year he suggested the town hire a grant writer who would seek federal and state funding through a competitive process, much in the same way non-profit organizations get funding.
The idea fell short.
Town leaders set aside $60,000 in the budget to pay for lobbying.
If the council decides to employ a lobbyist for the long term, Andrews estimates the annual cost could run as much as $150,000.
With the return on investment neighboring communities have seen, that price could prove a bargain for the town.
Marana this year hasn’t spent anything on lobbying fees. Even so, the town has benefitted from nearly $1.6 million in earmarks.
Between 2003 and 2007, however, Marana officials spent $140,000 on lobbying.
The University of Arizona may have realized the greatest payoff from its investment, at least locally.
The school spent slightly more than $131,000 on lobbyists this year. That investment helped the institution net more than $8 million in earmarks in 2008.
One of those earmarks — nearly $1 million for solar-energy research — came courtesy of Rep. Giffords.
“We’re looking at those same kind of numbers and saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’” Andrews said.
Critics of earmarks, though, say the process wastes the taxpayers’ money on building projects that benefit a relatively small number of people.
“For a community, it’s a tremendous investment,” said Ronald Utt, a federal budget researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “(But) it’s a travesty for the taxpayers.”
In recent town council documents, Oro Valley leaders have identified projects earmarks could fund, like the proposed connection and delivery system for Central Arizona Project water in town.
Estimates for that project range from $40 million to $75 million, officials say.
Another candidate for earmark funding, town records show, is the restoration at Steam Pump Ranch, a likely $10 million project.
Still another possible contender for federal support is the Naranja park plan, a building project that 57 percent of Oro Valley voters last month deemed too expensive to build.
“The real question is: Is it the federal government’s role to fund local recreational facilities?” Utt said.
But Andrews argues that with the proliferation of earmarks in recent years, residents of the state have paid more in taxes for services they never benefit from.
“I would make the counter argument that Arizona residents are subsidizing residents of other states,” Andrews said.
Earmarks have grown in popularity over the years as the favored tool legislators use to win favor among constituents and local leaders.
In 1991, Congress spent about $3 billion on 546 pork-barrel projects, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C. based group that publishes an annual report on earmarks called “The Pig Book.”
In 2008, legislators doled out more than $17 billion on at least 11,610 pork projects, according to the current “Pig Book.”
What local leaders likely don’t realize, according to Utt, is that in the long-term earmarks take money away from their respective states and districts.
Funding for highway projects, Utt explained, are based on a formula set forth in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act. Earmarks placed in related spending bills only serve to rob a lawmaker’s state of its share from that funding pool.
“It’s always the other people’s earmarks that are the problem,” Utt said of local leaders’ attitudes about pork-barrel spending. “Not your own.”
HOW MUCH DO THEY GET?
The following lists states that get the most per resident in earmarks:
1) $231 Alaska
2) $131 District of Columbia
3) $126 North Dakota
4) $118 West Virginia
5) $113 Mississippi
… 48) $10.64 Arizona*
* Arizona gets the third least amount in earmarks, behind New York and Florida.
Source: Office of Management and Budget; U.S. Census