A research center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, modernized traffic lights in Omaha and highway improvements in the Panhandle.
Those are some of the Nebraska projects being proposed for the first batch of congressional earmarks in 10 years.
Combined, Nebraska’s three congressmen submitted more than $300 million in earmark requests, and at least $44.25 million in requests have cleared initial hurdles.
In the Senate, however, it’s a different story.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who remains steadfast in his opposition to earmarks, made no requests. Sasse, along with Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, was among 15 Republican senators in April to sign a letter recommitting to their party’s internal Senate ban on earmarks.
“We can relentlessly advocate for Nebraska’s strengths without giving into the swamp politics of earmarks,” Sasse said in a statement to The World-Herald. “Washington is maxing out credit cards faster than the Kardashians and, although earmarks are a small percentage of the total budget, they contribute to an addiction to debt that both parties refuse to admit. We should keep our promises to ban earmarks.”
Earmark requests from Nebraska legislators
|Jeff Fortenberry||Surface Transportation Bill: US-275 Norfolk to Wisner||$83 million|
|Jeff Fortenberry||Agriculture Research Service (ARS) National Center for Resilient & Regenerative Precision Agriculture at UNL||$40 million|
|Jeff Fortenberry||Community Forestry Program Innovation in Community Forestry Design, Management of Infestations and Urban Tree Planting||$750,000|
|Adrian Smith||Heartland Expressway Phase III Minatare to Alliance, Nebraska||$10 million|
|Adrian Smith||South Sioux City Water Treatment Plant||$7 million|
|Don Bacon||Signal System Master Plan Accelerated Implementation - Omaha||$24 million|
|Don Bacon||Preparing for Zero Emissions Vehicles Through Building Upgrades - Omaha||$1.4 million|
|Don Bacon||Field Club Trail Pedestrian Bridge||$3.2 million|
|Don Bacon||North Omaha Transit Center Upgrades||$900,000|
|Don Bacon||Omaha Farnam Street Urban Circulator||$8 million|
|Don Bacon||PACE Community Center - Omaha||$9.2 million|
|Don Bacon||Encompass Omaha: A Hospital-based Violence Intervention Program||$526,651|
|Don Bacon||The North 24th Street Streetscape Improvement Project||$4.8 million|
|Don Bacon||Gretna Crossing Park||$5.7 million|
|Don Bacon||84th Street Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Improvement Project||$6.9 million|
|Don Bacon||Sarpy County Regional Wastewater System - Phase 1A: Springfield Creek Interceptor Sewer Project||$12.4 million|
Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, who has opposed earmarks in the past, did not respond to a request for comment, and there’s no indication on her website that she’s requested any.
Earmarking was linked to corruption in the 2000s, leading to an outcry and a ban on earmarks in both the House and Senate. But many in Congress say the ban has gone too far, ceding the “power of the purse” to party leaders and the executive branch and giving lawmakers less incentive to work across party lines.
Nebraska’s entire congressional delegation is Republican. In March, Morning Consult/Politico released polling that found that 56% of GOP voters opposed the restoration of earmarks.
Nebraska’s House members said they see value in the requests.
“Congress is given the power of the purse by our Constitution,” Rep. Adrian Smith said. “When we don’t direct spending, it only empowers federal bureaucrats to spend with little accountability or oversight.”
Rep. Don Bacon has said that he did not support bringing earmarks back this fiscal year but submitted his requests to make sure the Omaha metro area wasn’t left out.
“I didn’t want to leave the Omaha area off for consideration,” he said.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry emphasized the criteria used in his requests.
“Any project considered by my office needs to show a strong federal nexus, demonstrated public benefit as measured by rigorous public analysis, and local support and participation,” he said in a statement. “My community funding requests for this year represent important projects across agriculture, conservation and transportation that align with my well-communicated priorities for Nebraska and America.”
This year’s process for making earmarks includes several restrictions, including a requirement that individual requests be made public before a vote.
Bacon’s initial request included $89.2 million for six dams sought by the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, but it was quickly rejected. His request for $8 million for a final design of Omaha’s proposed streetcar was eliminated later in the process.
The delegation’s requests ranged in size from $526,651 by Bacon to fund an effort to reduce violence by following up on hospital admissions to $83 million by Fortenberry to widen U.S. 275 between Norfolk and Wisner.
The Fortenberry request was among two that would widen roadways in Nebraska. Smith is seeking $10 million to widen the Heartland Expressway between Minatare and Alliance.
Jeni Campana, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said the money would be helpful, but any road construction would take time because the process itself is lengthy.
“We’re thankful for what they’re trying to do,” she said.
Whether these and other earmarks survive the budgeting process remains to be seen. Earmarks must first survive a House review and vote.
Earmarks that remain alive include two by Bacon — $20 million to modernize Omaha’s traffic lights and $3.5 million to expand sewer service in Sarpy County — and two by Fortenberry — $20 million to build a new ag research center in Lincoln and $750,000 to address the emerald ash borer infestation.
Funding for traffic lights would help Omaha with a modernization project the city has been working on since 2013. Some of the city’s traffic signals include software dating to the 1970s and 1980s.
Jeff Riesselman, city traffic engineer, said the funding would significantly speed up the project, which is expected to cost $60 million and take the rest of this decade to complete. So far, the city’s spent about $15 million for upgrades.
“We have only been able to secure (federal) funding one year at a time, so that has made it difficult to plan,” he said. “The earmark would be a significant help ... we would be able to get more done sooner.”
The next step in the process is for the House to winnow the myriad requests into a final package. That could happen this month. From there, the House package must be reconciled with the Senate’s spending plans. Lack of a Senate earmark for a Nebraska project wouldn’t necessarily doom it. Instead, Congress could vote up or down on the full final earmark package.