In "Earmarks to Nowhere: States Losing Billions," Cezary Podkul with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University and USA Today reporter Gregory Korte found at least 3,600 earmarks in which not a single dollar has gone towards its intended purpose. There are just as many in which at least some of the money remains unspent.
In fact, USA Today reports, almost 1 in 3 highway dollars earmarked since 1991 - about $13 billion - remains unspent, federal data show. "We call them orphan earmarks," says Michael Covington of the South Carolina Department of Transportation, told the paper. "They don't have a home."
Making things worse, because lawmakers inserted some of the earmarks into particular sections of transportation bills, many of the orphan earmarks also count against a state's share of federal highway funds and have taken billions of dollars away from state transportation departments, the paper says. During the past 20 years, orphan earmarks cut the amount of money that states would have received in federal highway funding by about $7.5 billion.
USA Today also has a video about how this problem affects Pennsylvania, which is fourth in the list of states with the most unspent earmarks:
How it Happens
Sometimes it's because of basic typographical and procedural errors. As an example, the story points to $375,000 earmarked to "improve State Road 31" in Columbus, Ind. Only problem is, there is no State Road 31 in Columbus -- only U.S. 31. The typo has wrapped the earmark in red tape and the money remains unspent 13 years later.
Other orphaned earmarks get lost because they're meant for projects that later get shelved. Some orphan earmarks are leftovers from long-completed projects -- like $2.7 million that never got spent by Atlanta for transportation improvements needed for the 1996 Olympics.
"With state budgets squeezed and the economy in slow recovery, states are increasingly vocal about having money tied up in projects that many never wanted in the first place," the authors note. "They say the money could be better used for shovel-ready projects that would create jobs, replace crumbling bridges and roads, and make highways safer."
On Capitol Hill
The orphan earmark issue seems to add insult to injury as the company wrestles with the question of how to pay for its infrastructure. The fuel tax, which has not gone up since 1993, does not produce enough revenue to fund ongoing highway needs, and will generate declining amounts of revenue going forward as cars and trucks get more efficient. The landslide Republican victory in November changed the transportation players on the House side, but there is no clear signal that even with this new leadership Congress has the political will to solve the key problem of funding the federal highway program.
However, the USA Today story explains that it's tough to fix these orphan earmarks, or cancel them to free up the money for other projects.
Rep. James Oberstar,D-Minn., who was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was supporting a bill that would have canceled more than $700 million in orphan earmarks from 1987 on. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Betsy Markey, D-Colo., passed the House, 394-23, and died in the Senate. The lawmakers who championed it, Oberstar and Markey, lost their seats in the November elections.
To learn more, be sure to check out the story at USA Today. There's lots more detail, including an interactive map showing which states have the most unspent funds.