Richmond Times-Dispatch: As earmarks return, federal dollars to flow to Virginia projects through new U.S. budget

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

A new federal budget is halfway through Congress, with billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine and authority for Virginia and other states to receive all of the money promised to them last fall for highways and bridges in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

But the budget approved by the House of Representatives late Wednesday and due for a vote by the Senate also heralds a return of earmarks — federal dollars for local projects championed by members of Congress.

Congress had abandoned the practice — alternately cherished and reviled — more than a decade ago, but revived it “in a manner that promotes transparency and accountability,” U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, said after the House vote.

The two senators heralded $5 million for rehabilitating the deteriorating Mayo Bridge across the James River in downtown Richmond; nearly $4 million for a new federal inspection service facility at Richmond International Airport and $2 million for construction of the southern portion of the new Fall Line Trail in Petersburg and through Virginia State University in Ettrick.

The budget also includes $5.8 million that Warner had requested for planning and design of a new Army Aviation Support Facility for the Virginia National Guard in Sandston.

The senators also shared credit with Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, for including $1 million in the budget for a project to expand public access to the Amtrak train station in Ettrick as part of a project to revitalize the structure, now more than 65 years old.

McEachin said the budget includes $19.1 million for community projects at his request, including almost $1 million for a gun violence prevention project at Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as $400,000 for a residency program at VCU to train teachers in early childhood education, both also supported by Warner and Kaine.

“I am elated that all ten of my Community Project Funding requests were fully funded through this bill, bringing millions of dollars back home to Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District,” McEachin said in a statement on Thursday.

McEachin’s earmark package also included money to extend the Prince George County water system along Route 10, upgrade the Petersburg wastewater plant that serves the new pharmaceutical manufacturing industry and build pedestrian access across Cattail Creek in Hopewell.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, procured funding for projects in each of the 10 counties she represents, including $1 million each for drainage improvements along Otterdale Road in Chesterfield County and an in-patient detoxification center in Henrico County, both projects that Warner and Kaine also supported.

As passed by the House, the budget bill includes $375,000 for a new circuit court clerk’s office in Amelia County, $924,000 for a new aerial ladder fire truck in Nottoway County and $15,000 for the GoochlandCares program in Goochland County, but Spanberger refrained from declaring the deal done until the Senate votes to send the spending bill to President Joe Biden to sign.

Under the new “community funding” process, each member of the House can request up to 10 local projects in the budget, but they must have local sponsors and qualify for federal grants. “The purpose of Community Project Funding is to ensure direct, local engagement as part of the federal appropriations process,” said Spanberger’s website, which lists the projects submitted to her office. “In line with this goal, funding applications must demonstrate significant local support for the projects.”

The omnibus spending bill would do much more than just provide money for congressional earmarks. For example, it includes $14 billion for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine as it fights to withstand a brutal invasion and military attack by Russia.

It requires reporting of all cyber-attacks on public and private networks to the federal government, with safeguards for privacy, a priority for Warner as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

It includes $5 million for a new hate crimes reporting network named partly for Heather Heyer, an Albemarle County woman killed after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and $1 million to roll out the Ashanti Alert system for missing adults from 18 to 64 years old. The alert system, authorized under a 2018 law Warner sponsored, is named for Ashanti Billie, a 19-year-old woman abducted in Norfolk in 2017 whose body was found 11 days later in North Carolina.

Most important, the budget legislation would fully fund the federal government for the current fiscal year instead of relying on continuing resolutions as temporary stopgaps.

Without it, the government would be limited to spending what it was authorized last year, which would prevent it from spending additional money, including portions of the $1 trillion infrastructure act.

Warner and Kaine estimate that would cost the state $364 million for road and bridge projects and $53 million in new funding for transit systems. They say the omnibus spending bill also is necessary for the government to distribute $37 billion in new spending on defense and $1.85 billion for public health infrastructure projects.

“We are pleased to see the House of Representatives vote to pass a full-year spending package, which will prevent a costly shutdown and provide key federal funding for some of Virginia’s top priorities,” the senators said in a statement.

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