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Palin Plays Earmark Game Like Champ

PHILADELPHIA — On the campaign trail, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the designated GOP vice presidential nominee, paints herself as a McCain-style earmark terminator. At a rally Sunday in O’Fallon, Mo., Palin made just this claim:

“In Alaska now, with the budget under control, we have a surplus. I’ve never hesitated to protect the wages and the jobs of our people by vetoing wasteful spending. I’ve also championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending of Congress. As the senator said, I told the Congress, ‘Thanks, but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere. If our state wanted to build a bridge, we would b ild it ourselves.’”

In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, earmarks have become synonymous with corruption. Therefore extolling one’s opposition to them has become fashionable on the stump. Unfortunately for Palin, she does not point out that as a candidate for governor, she supported the earmark for the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere.” The Washington Post finds that as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Palin was perfectly willing to play ball, even going so far as to hire — GASP! — well-connected lobbyists to ensure her town got a disproportionately large piece of the federal spending pie.

As mayor of Wasilla, however, Palin oversaw the hiring of Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh, an Anchorage-based law firm with close ties to Alaska’s most senior Republicans: Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, who was indicted in July on charges of accepting illegal gifts. The Wasilla account was handled by the former chief of staff to Stevens, Steven W. Silver, who is a partner in the firm.

Palin was elected mayor of Wasilla in 1996 on a campaign theme of “a time for change.” According to a review of congressional spending by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan watchdog group in Washington, Wasilla did not receive any federal earmarks in the first few years of Palin’s tenure.

Senate records show that Silver’s firm began working for Palin in early 2000, just as federal money began flowing.

In fiscal 2000, Wasilla received a $1 million earmark, tucked into a transportation appropriations bill, for a rail and bus project in the town. And in the winter of 2000, Palin appeared before congressional appropriations committees to seek earmarks, according to a report in the Anchorage Daily News.

Palin and the Wasilla City Council increased Silver’s fee from $24,000 to $36,000 a year by 2001, Senate records show.

Soon after, the city benefited from additional earmarks: $500,000 for a mental health center, $500,000 for the purchase of federal land and $450,000 to rehabilitate an agricultural processing facility. Then there was the $15 million rail project, intended to connect Wasilla with the town of Girdwood, where Stevens has a house.

The Post reports Wasilla — population 6,700 — received $6.1 million in earmerks in fiscal year 2002, compared to $6.9 million for Boise, Idaho, which has a population of 190,000. In February, Palin submitted a request for $200 million in earmarks to the now-indicted Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

I’ve never been to Wasilla. I don’t know what its needs are, and some of the projects listed in The Post article seem worthwhile. It could be that $900,000 for sewer repairs is a solid investment for the people of the town. Others, probably could have used more scrutiny, like the $15-million rail link. Whatever the case, Palin’s claim to being an anti-earmark crusader is a bit off.

This also reveals a lot about the philosophies of Sen. John McCain and his running mate. McCain has taken a hard line against earmarks, and my home state of Arizona ranks dead last in federal “pork” spending. Stevens, and we now know Palin played the game: Alaska ranks first in pork.

Pork is a derogatory, catch-all term that includes a lot of projects, from Woodstock museums and bridges to nowhere to schools and hospitals. Earmarks aren’t all bad. Some are genuinely worthwhile, despite being labeled as pork.

I’m not saying everyone should behave like Stevens. Certainly, there should be a lot more oversight and appropriations should be evaluated on the basis of merit. But the reality is that McCain’s campaign pledge to veto all bills containing an earmark, which sounds great on its face and never fails to get cheers from a town hall audience, would slow the frequently glacial pace of lawmaking to a near stop. His blanket anti-earmark stance, which has been mimicked by several of his House colleagues, has left Arizona severely underrepresented in Congress.

McCain has long been more prominent as a national figure than he has been in his home state. His service to his constituents is a major aspect of McCain’s career in Washington that has thus far escaped hard examination during this campaign season. It looks like this could be about to change. Stay tuned.

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