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Return of earmarks in Congress brings Minnesota projects more than $130M

Earmarks have been absent from spending bills since the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Now they're back under names like "congressionally directed spending" and "community project funding." In the past week, Minnesota Democrats have put out statements touting millions in direct funding they obtained for Minnesota. All but two members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation had their names attached to some earmarks.

Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge got $500,000 in direct federal funding for rehabilitation from the $1.5 trillion spending bill President Joe Biden signed this week. It's one of the many projects across Minnesota with an earmark in the bill.
Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge got $500,000 in direct federal funding for rehabilitation from the $1.5 trillion spending bill President Joe Biden signed this week. It's one of the many projects across Minnesota with an earmark in the bill.
Duluth News Tribune file photo
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ST. PAUL — After a decade-long absence, members of Congress are once again able to direct spending to specific projects in their home districts and states, and Minnesota’s senators and representatives brought home millions in a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill signed by President Joe Biden this week.

The state’s congressional delegation obtained more than $130 million for 70-plus Minnesota-specific projects and programs, a Forum News Service review of the federal legislation found, including law enforcement facilities, wastewater treatment, rural broadband, and other infrastructure projects. Two multi-state projects involving Minnesota include more than $45 million for an Upper Mississippi River waterway and nearly $22 million for the Lewis and Clark Rural Water System in Iowa and Minnesota and South Dakota.

Earmarks, as they are called, are provisions in federal spending bills that directly allocate money for specific programs and circumvent the usual process where government agencies do so on their own guidelines. The practice fell out of favor due to excesses such as Alaska’s notorious “bridge to nowhere” project in the 2000s, and was seen by many as a symbol of waste in Washington.

Earmarks have been absent from spending bills since the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Now they're back under names like "congressionally directed spending" and "community project funding."

Many members of Congress are more than happy to share the earmarks they’ve obtained for projects at home and see them as a tool to cut out bureaucratic middlemen when distributing funds.

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“The advantage of this is that a lot of these are projects that don’t get the eye of a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C.,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a Wednesday, March 16, interview with Forum News Service. “They don’t understand that the Lift Bridge in Duluth is iconic and worth funding and has some improvements that need to be made.”

Klobuchar pointed to $500,000 she obtained to rehabilitate Duluth’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge as one of the more glamorous projects she obtained funding for but said some of the most important funding goes toward crucial infrastructure often taken for granted. Those projects include $7.5 million for the Thief River Falls Regional Airport and multi-million-dollar water treatment plant upgrades in cities such as Bemidji, Rochester and Two Harbors.

Water reclamation plant
The Rochester Water Reclamation Plant in 2007. (Post Bulletin file photo)

“You can do it two ways. You can just put some money forward and close your eyes and hope it gets spent right or you can take accountability, you can take ownership over it,” Klobuchar said. “And I think it’s better to take ownership.”

The return of earmarks has faced criticism from fiscal conservatives, who say the practice is nontransparent and inherently leads to abuse and waste. Indeed, it can take some digging to find the provisions in appropriations bills. More than 4,000 earmarks in the March omnibus bill are in documents not directly part of the bill itself. Earmark opponent Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., circulated a 367-page list of earmarks to the media as he attempted to get directed spending cut from the bill.

In the past week, Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith, as well as Reps. Ilhan Omar and Betty McCollum — all Democrats — have put out statements touting millions in direct funding they obtained for Minnesota. Klobuchar's name is attached to the majority of Minnesota earmarks, and including the multi-state projects is attached to more than $170 million in directed spending.

All but two members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation had their names attached to some earmarks.

About half, roughly $65 million, went to four congressional districts in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, all represented by Democrats. Republican Rep. Tom Emmer requested about $10 million in funding for water and road infrastructure in his district, which encompasses the northwestern Twin Cities suburbs and St. Cloud.

Northeast Minnesota Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, whose 8th District includes Duluth, the Iron Range and Brainerd, joined Klobuchar and Smith in backing a $5.8 million broadband expansion project in Pine County, $3.5 million for a wastewater treatment plant in Two Harbors, and $1.5 million for a day care center in Little Falls. He also got $3 million for a road infrastructure project in the Iron Range city of Virginia.

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Two Minnesota Republican representatives do not have their names attached to any earmarks in the March omnibus bill. Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach, who represents western Minnesota’s 7th District, was one. Contacted by Forum News Service, her office said she had no comment on the omnibus bill or earmarks.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died in February, did not have his name attached to any earmarks, though his wife, former GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan, received $174,000 in the omnibus bill. It is tradition for Congress to provide money to spouses of members who die while in office. Carnahan is running for her husband’s former 1st District seat, which is up for a special election.

Neighboring South Dakota had roughly $49.6 million in state-specific earmark projects, including a $30 million Interstate 29 interchange project in Sioux Falls requested by Republican Sen. John Thune. North Dakota's members of Congress did not have their names attached to any earmarks in the omnibus bill.

Sample of projects across Minnesota

Northwest Minnesota

  • $7.5M for Thief River Falls Airport Air Cargo Development (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $975,000 Dilworth Fire Hall (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $500,000 Moorhead Center Avenue reconstruction (Klobuchar, Smith)

Northeast Minnesota

  • $3.5M City of Two Harbors for a wastewater treatment facility improvements project (Klobuchar, Smith, Stauber)
  • $3.5M Chisholm Public Safety Building (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $3M City of Virginia 2021/2023 street and infrastructure improvement project phase 1, stage 2 (Stauber)
  • $2.74M Fond du Lac Law Enforcement and Emergency management building (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $2.5M City of Aurora for East Mesabi Water Treatment Project (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $926,000 Biwabik US Army Corps of Engineers environmental infrastructure (Klobuchar)
  • $926,000 Virginia US Army Corps of Engineers environmental infrastructure (Klobuchar)
  • $750,000 Duluth 911 Automated Response System (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $500,000 City of Duluth for Aerial Lift Bridge rehabilitation and revitalization (Klobuchar)

Western and central Minnesota

  • $5.58M Pine County broadband expansion (Klobuchar, Smith, Stauber)
  • $1.5M Little Falls Child Care Facility Stauber, (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $1.3M Mille Lacs Tribal Business Incubator (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $665,000 New London Library and City Hall (Klobuchar)
  • $193,000 Northern Kandiyohi County Food Pantry (Smith)

Southern Minnesota

  • $935,000 City of Rochester for Water Reclamation Plant Upgrade (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $500,000 Rochester Records Management System Upgrade (Klobuchar, Smith)
  • $560,000 City of Zumbrota for Water Main loop Craig (Klobuchar, Smith)

This story has been updated to include Sen. Amy Klobuchar's directed spending requests and include interstate projects involving Minnesota.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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