After Earmarks

Most people, I think, agree that earmarks are bad public policy. Legislators allocate millions of our taxpayer dollars to whatever organizations or projects they like–mostly those in the communities they represent.

These earmarks aren’t subject to public hearings. And fellow legislators don’t question them. It’s an unspoken compact: If I don’t question your earmarks, then you won’t question mine. We’ll all benefit come re-elections time.

Here in the District, we had a fine flap over some of Councilmember Marion Barry’s earmarks. In the wake of this, the City Council decided to eliminate all earmarks from the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. A quick, easy to way to save more than $22 million and avoid further embarrassments at the same time.

So now more than 130 organizations–social service providers, health education programs and clinics, youth groups, cultural programs, environmental projects, economic development, neighborhood improvement, job training and education programs, child advocacy services and more–are without funds they counted on.

Council Chairman Vincent Gray was undoubtedly right. Better wipe out all earmarks than try to pick and choose among them. To see why, take a look at Title VIII in the original Budget Support Act.

But where do we go from here? The District’s safety net consists largely of nonprofit organizations that combine private donations with public funds to deliver essential services to its poorest residents. These organizations can’t simply absorb lost earmarks.

The Fiscal Year 2010 budget is all but a done deal. But the Fiscal Year 2011 budget cycle is about to begin. Perhaps the Mayor and the City Council should agree on a no-earmarks policy and institute a better alternative.

In many areas, they already identify critical needs, appropriate funds for them and then award the funds based on a competitive grants process. Why not take a hard look at services formerly supported in part by earmarks and establish competitive grants for the the most critical of these too?

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