With earmarks reinstated, Leahy poised to deliver more federal money to Vermont

Patrick Leahy at podium with Phil Scott in background
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks at a press conference in Montpelier on Thursday, May 6, 2021, as Gov. Phil Scott looks on. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

When U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced late last month that earmarks were returning to the federal appropriations process, organizations across Vermont took notice.

With that proclamation, Leahy, as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, became not only in charge of crafting spending bills, but also the man who will sign off on requests from individual members of Congress to fund home-state projects.

On that same day, Leahy attended a virtual event hosted by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce to discuss business needs and the latest available Covid-19 relief.

After the senator left the meeting, one of his aides, Chris Saunders, told chamber members that businesses across the state should pitch projects that could receive federal funding.

Saunders described it as the “topic du jour,” and in the coming weeks Leahy’s office would work closely with stakeholders on ways to invest federal money in community projects and infrastructure in Vermont.

“We have no shortage of ideas that we've already received,” Saunders said.

“If anybody's got a project that they are working on that they want to make sure is on the senator’s radar, we would love to hear about it and see if there's a way to single out funding for that initiative," he said.

Leahy’s office is expected to set a deadline of late May for organizations to make pitches to the senator.

Earmarks were banned in 2011 by then-House Speaker John Boehner after Republicans took control of the chamber. The practice of directing federal money to home-state projects has been controversial, with critics contending the system led to corruption. 

Earmarks occasionally led to scandal, such as when $223 million in federal money was earmarked for a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska in 2005. 

Leahy’s announcement came with several guardrails in the earmarking process that already existed before the 2011 ban. Among other things, senators may not request funding for projects in which they or an immediate family member have a financial interest, spending items must be introduced in writing, and the appropriations committee must make each request publicly available online. 

Reforms of the earmarking process began in 2007, when new transparency rules required the disclosure of which lawmaker sponsored an earmark. Those reforms make it possible to know what projects Leahy supported from 2007 to 2011 — and provide clues as to what Leahy may be able to do for Vermont now that the practice has been reinstated.

For the three fiscal years in that timeframe, Leahy secured earmarks worth nearly $381 million. That helped Vermont rank fourth in the U.S. for earmark dollars per capita, according to data collected by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a federal budget watchdog organization.

In fiscal year 2010, Leahy obtained 58 individual earmarks worth a total of $57 million — good for 10th place out of all 100 senators. First place went to then-Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who held the job Leahy has now — chair of the appropriations committee — on and off for two decades until shortly before his death in 2010. Byrd brought in more than $251 million that year. His successor as appropriations chair, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, collected nearly $205 million. 

In the years leading up to the suspension of earmarks, Leahy put his name on millions of dollars worth of projects for the Vermont National Guard, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the University of Vermont and myriad other organizations throughout the state.

Saunders signaled last week that Leahy’s office was already looking at a list of projects that could be earmarked in the 12 federal appropriations bills.

Several hundred nonprofit organizations are likely to make earmark proposals, according to Charles Martin, a lobbyist for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. Martin said the chamber is looking to push proposals that would not normally get federal or state aid.

“If you look at earmarks, traditionally they are for projects that don’t usually get addressed through normal funding courses, and that is uniquely beneficial to really rural areas like Vermont,” Martin said.

Austin Davis, a lobbyist for the Lake Champlain Chamber, said he wouldn’t be surprised if people are pitching “everything under the sun” for earmarks.

“I think everybody’s got an idea about how Congress should do their job better and this is your chance to pitch it,” Davis said.

Nick Richardson, executive director of the Vermont Land Trust, said his organization had already been in touch with Leahy’s team about ideas for federal money. Those conversations have been mostly about how best to support the nonprofit’s goals of protecting farms, forests and natural habitat. Richardson said there have also been talks about potential farm product marketing proposals and funding for land acquisition across the state.

“We’re excited to see those conversations start back up again because of the impact they can have here in Vermont,” Richardson said.

Gene Richards, director of aviation for Burlington International Airport, said he has not yet spoken with Leahy’s office, but has developed a pitch for energy-efficiency upgrades at the airport, such as solar panels and other large-scale developments.

“We hope to meet with the senator, but also I know a lot of other areas in our state probably need things worse than we do, but I will certainly advocate for energy efficiencies and our safety projects,” Richards said.

Gus Seelig, executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, was more coy about any possible funding proposals.

Seelig said Tuesday there have not yet been specific conversations about the availability of earmarks, and in any case he would talk to Leahy’s office about any potential projects before speaking to the press.

However, Seelig signaled that the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board was developing some proposals. He pointed to a project in downtown Windsor that Leahy helped the board achieve a decade ago. 

“We’d certainly look for those kinds of opportunities again,” he said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated which senator obtained the most earmarks in fiscal year 2010. 

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: knorton@vtdigger.org

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