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Obey, Oberstar among top 20 in securing earmarks for states

Sometimes it pays to live in a district with a tenured congressman. According to data compiled and released this week by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wausau, was No. 11 among all House members and led Wisc...

Sometimes it pays to live in a district with a tenured congressman.

According to data compiled and released this week by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wausau, was No. 11 among all House members and led Wisconsin representatives with $59 million in earmarks, including $4 million for a Duluth-Superior harbor project.

Obey, a 39-year veteran of Congress, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The appropriations known as earmarks offer a wide range of federal support for local communities, such as highways, education, health care and economic development, said Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Democrat.

"It's not that there's one particular impact," Brachman said. "It's helping local communities."

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One example is Section 154 funding, which assists communities in northern Wisconsin with infrastructure costs for projects designed to improve the environment along the Lake Superior watershed and adjacent watersheds. The congressman has secured millions to assist with sewer improvements in the village and city of Superior, and Parkland's planning efforts to bring in a sewer system to address aging septic systems.

"These are communities that have major infrastructure needs" and wouldn't be able to fund repairs without the federal money, Brachman said. "The program comes in, works with the Corps of Engineers and local communities in a cost-sharing way to do the development. It benefits the local communities and helps keep tax rates down."

But it has a wider benefit. In addition to the communities, he said, there is a "major environmental impact" that stems from the funding for the Section 154 program.

Jim Oberstar, D-Chisholm, led all U.S. representatives from Minnesota by bringing back $5.1 million in earmarks to his district in fiscal year 2008. He also signed on to another $90.3 million in earmarks with other members of Congress, giving him the highest total of any congressman in the state and No. 19 among all House members.

Oberstar is chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

An earmark is a provision in legislation that directs money to specific projects, usually in the Congress member's district. Legislators who get the most in earmarks are often those with the most seniority or influence, which is why the practice has come under scrutiny lately. Many earmark projects are inserted into bills without discussion or executive branch oversight, which is partly why presidential candidate John McCain has campaigned against earmarks, while President Bush is urging drastic cuts.

Oberstar's lone Duluth earmark was $392,000 for a transit bus facility. But he also signed onto funding with Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar that provided $2.6 million in funding for projects in Duluth, including $1.5 million for a 148th Fighter Wing storage facility, $390,000 for a Lutheran Social Service program for homeless or runaway youth and $247,000 for a College of St. Scholastica rural health demonstration project.

His other earmarks included $1.4 million for Interstate 35, $450,000 for the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission, and $747,000 for the Northeast Law Enforcement Administrators Council Methamphetamine Reduction Project.

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Oberstar spokesman John Schadl said the earmarked money, at least in the 8th District, goes toward needed projects.

"Congressman Oberstar listens to his community," Schadl said. "The earmarks he brings back are in direct requests from cities, towns and individual citizens, at times. This more about responsive government than anything else."

The only Minnesota legislator to not take any pork was Republican Rep. John Kline, who serves the 2nd District south of the Twin Cities. In Wisconsin, Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, didn't take any pork.

Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi, ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, led all senators and representatives by collecting $837 million worth of earmarks.

Kline's spokesperson, Troy Young, said that earmark projects are often worthwhile, but called the system of how the money is allocated "broken."

"Rather than decisions being prioritized on the merit of a project," Young said, "they're based on seniority, the committees they sit on and the possibly the party you belong to."

Daily Telegram news editor Shelley Nelson contributed to this report.

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