Emerson defends earmarks

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The rivalry between Cape Girardeau and Sikeston, Mo., over the proposed path of a highway linking Paducah, Ky., and Southeast Missouri was on display Friday, albeit in a muted manner.

During a meeting of community and business leaders with Republican U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Cape Girardeau, Ed Dust, director of the Sikeston Department of Economic Development, reiterated his town's support for a new Mississippi River bridge at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The meeting took place at the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce building.

And when it came his turn, Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson said the best route would make use of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau.

Along with talk of the road and other regional transportation and economic issues, Emerson made a strong defense of earmarks in Congressional spending bills. She did warn, however, that those earmarks will be harder to obtain in future spending measures.

At issue is how best to promote the economy of the region. With the adding of lanes to U.S. 60 across southern Missouri, both towns are looking eastward as a way to increase traffic flow through the region. For Dust, the most logical route would be to replace the bridges that link Kentucky and Missouri through the southern tip of Illinois.

"Sikeston has taken a big lead in this," Dust said. "We are going to have four lanes all across southern Missouri, and we need to use it."

For Knudtson, the expense of a new bridge dictates that the Emerson Bridge is the logical route, with a highway connecting the bridge to Interstate 24 coming out of Paducah.

Knudtson acknowledged that Cape Girardeau would likely have to give up the dream of a major highway heading west, but said Sikeston should abandon dreams of a major new bridge.

"We all have to be realistic as this stuff costs money," Knudtson said. "As ludicrous as it seems to have a highway west, it is expensive to build a bridge. It would be an exorbitant amount of money."

At stake is the business that would be generated by any new connection.

"If we both give a little bit, that makes more sense to me," Knudtson said.

In reply to Dust, Emerson agreed that studying the potential of a bridge is a priority and reminded the group that she had secured funds for such a study. She also noted that the details of any connection would have to be worked out with the member of Congress from western Kentucky and the newly elected Kentucky governor.

As the meeting opened, Emerson told the group of about two dozen that finding money for local projects will be tougher this year and in the future because of public reaction against earmarks in federal budget bills.

The most recent spending plan for operating the federal government through October included 9,000 items earmarked by members of the House and Senate for their states and districts. Combined with the Defense Department appropriations passed separately, the total is 12,000 projects.

The public in general, Emerson noted, is against earmarks. But when asked about a specific project in their area, the reaction reverses, with the public generally supportive, she said.

Earmarked items approved in recent years for this area include the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, the westward extension of Nash Road and money for levee repairs as well as the new East Main Street/LaSalle Avenue interchange on Interstate 55.

"Everybody is all nervous about the concept of earmarks," Emerson said.

But she defended the earmarking process. "I feel very good about it," she said. "I am very proud of it because it is the way we bring tax dollars back home."

The alternative, Emerson said, is to turn much more power over federal spending over to the executive branch of the federal government. Under the constitution, she noted, Congress is responsible for appropriations and that is the way it should remain.

One change in the process, she said, is that earmarked items will now carry a note indicating who is requesting the money, whether it is an organization or a community. "The climate is going to be a bit different," she said. "Hopefully you won't mind having the city of Cape Girardeau or the city of Sikeston listed as requestors."

The process, she said, will require extensive justification of the requests.

While earmarks make up less than 1 percent of federal spending, she said, the items are important for making sure local priorities receive proper attention. "I don't want to offend the Office of Management and Budget, but they don't understand what we here in our local community need."

rkeller@semissourian

335-6611, extension 126

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