• Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

Texas on tap for $280 million as pork barrel spending returns to Congress

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Mar 10, 2022

WASHINGTON — Spending on hog barrels has returned to Congress, and Texas is on track to receive more than $280 million in federal funding for roads, schools, police and a host of other local needs.

The $1.5 trillion government spending bill that passed the House on Wednesday night includes billions in congressional appropriations for the first time since the practice was banned in 2010 amid complaints of corruption and unnecessary expenses.

This time there are stricter rules and a cap to keep spending allocated to 1% of the budget. Members of Congress had to publicly swear that they had no personal financial ties to the recipients of the funding, which could not be private or for-profit companies. And they had to document local support for the projects.

Texans are already touting the funding they secured in the bill, which would pay for more than 140 projects statewide. The money would go to lab equipment for community colleges in San Antonio, affordable and LGBTQ-friendly senior housing in Dallas, and a Mahatma Gandhi museum in Houston.

“As we rebound from the pandemic, this funding will support well-paying jobs and expand our infrastructure of opportunity now and for years to come,” U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, said in a statement detailing the $10.5 million in projects that he requested.

They include $2 million for a municipal single-family home rehabilitation project for low-income families and $1 million for the San Antonio Housing Authority to expand internet access at its properties.

In total, the affected projects in the spending bill would send more than $91 million to the Houston area and more than $45 million to San Antonio.

“It’s incredibly meaningful,” John Hudak, associate director of the Brookings Institute’s Center for Effective Public Management, said of the practice’s return.

Hudak, who supports the use of postings, said they have been misunderstood by the public and widely misunderstood by high-profile examples of abuse. In effect, earmarking injects more local control into the budget process.

“Assignments don’t add to the budget, they just decide how the cake is sliced,” Hudak said. “The question is not whether you want assignments or not. The question is: do you want your congressman to decide how the money is distributed, or do you want a bureaucrat in Washington to decide?

Still, many Republicans oppose the practice. Russell Vought, who served as former President Donald Trump’s budget director, called the Fox News legislation a “reckless spending bill” with “heaps of earmarkings.”

U.S. Representative Chip Roy, a Republican from Austin who voted against the bill, called it “swamp spending.”

“Assignment!!” Roy tweeted. “And the Washington establishment is screaming, ‘Can I get an amen?!'”

The spending bill easily passed the House in a bipartisan vote, and Texans on both sides of the aisle got involved.

U.S. Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Houston, has earmarked nearly $26.5 million for flood prevention projects in his district. They include nearly $10 million for the TC Jester stormwater retention pond and $1.6 million to improve drainage at Forest Manor. US Representatives Lizzie Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrats of Houston, have also earmarked millions for flood prevention projects.

U.S. Representative Tony Gonzales, a Republican from San Antonio, has requested nearly $40 million in funding for projects, including $10 million for a vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Bullis and $22 million for a center Children’s Development Center and at Lackland Air Force Base.

The $22 million child development center was the largest project planned by a Texas member of the House. The smallest was $40,000 that US Representative Al Green, a Democrat from Houston, requested for equipment for Legacy Community Health clinics in Houston.

Assignments return just months before a heated midterm election when members are likely to hold back the funding they brought home as an accomplishment to fend off challengers, Hudak said. He said decades of research show that assignments help incumbents by giving them tangible evidence they can show to prove their tenure is paying off.

“In a time when the public tends to distrust government, any situation in which an elected official can tangibly demonstrate to his constituents what he has done for them is a political victory,” he said. “It’s a perk of the office.”

At least one Texas incumbent is already brandishing specific projects as he tries to hold onto his seat. U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo who was forced into a runoff by progressive immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros, began touting the $19.2 million he had requested for projects in his 28th district before the spending bill even passed the House. The projects include $2.3 million for the Starr County Courthouse and $1 million for an emergency operations center in Zapata County.

“Today is a historic day for South Texas! Cuellar, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, tweeted hours before the vote. “The Omnibus Funding Bill will provide essential projects in TX-28 that create jobs, support small businesses and protect our most vulnerable neighbors. Proud to be a senior member of this committee – the only Texas Dem!

Cisneros was quick to hit back, pointing to a 13-day boil water advisory that was lifted this week in Laredo.

“After 17 years of your leadership, the people of Laredo still don’t have access to clean water,” she tweeted. “It’s time for a change.”

ben.wermund@chron.com