The four Colorado Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have assembled a list of nearly $200 million in special spending on transportation initiatives and community projects in their districts as Congress reopens the door to the controversial practice of earmarking.
The Colorado projects in an expected $2 trillion infrastructure bill range from $20,000 for Denver’s Mi Casa Resource Center to $29.2 million to rebuild the Interstate 70 and Airpark Road interchange east of the city.
It’s been 10 years since Congress ended earmarks, the practice of allowing individual members to designate funding for projects in their districts. Scandals and controversy surrounding the spending practice led to its demise, and conservatives remain skeptical of earmarks.
Republicans in conservative districts have disavowed the practice, including the three GOP U.S. representatives from Colorado. That could mean Colorado Springs and the state’s rural areas lose out on some funding opportunities.
“It’s been a party-line thing, where if you want to show you’re a good GOP member you denounce earmarks,” said Kevin Kosar, a scholar specializing in governance for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “If they go after earmarks, they may hurt their small-government cred.”
But the projects may be key to getting Democratic President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress.
The House adopted earmark guidelines for community projects and transportation projects prohibiting conflicts of interest and money going to for-profit organizations. Those rules require House members to post information about their projects on their official webpages, which all the Democrats have done.
Kosar praised those measures. “I think this system, assuming they continue to roll it out well, is going to be so much better than the old system, not least because it requires transparency.”
The Senate has yet to create guidelines for projects, so Colorado’s Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet have yet to identify any they’ll include in infrastructure bills. Both Democrats are expected to have earmarks, too.
There are no guarantees the designated projects will be included in final spending bills. But the earmarks are a good start toward funding.
Kosar said the projects will be reviewed by the Government Accountability Office “to see if there are boondoggles in there.”
“That is going to force members of Congress to be selective,” he said.
Earmarks heavy on road projectsU.S. Rep. Jason Crow, D-Aurora, has the most costly list of projects, including a $29.2 million request to rebuild the Interstate 70 and Airpark Road interchange near Denver International Airport.
Crow is also requesting $22.4 million for the Interstate 76 and Bridge Street interchange in Brighton and $10 million for the Interstate 25 and Belleview Avenue interchange in Arapahoe County.
Transit and homelessness is a focus for U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver. She’s asking for $13.5 million to renovate Broadway Station at I-25, and $7.9 million for central corridor rail replacement on behalf of RTD.
Another $10 million requested by DeGette would go toward rebuilding a shelter for Urban Peak, an organization that serves homeless youths in Denver.
“The funding requests we’ve made this year focus on several important issues facing the district – including homelessness and improvements to our light rail,” DeGette said in a written statement. “If approved, this funding will have a significant impact on our community in a wide range of ways.”
The top project for U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, is $10 million to widen Wadsworth Boulevard in Wheat Ridge between West 35th Avenue and I-70.
“Congressionally-directed spending provides an opportunity to advocate on behalf of the cities, counties and nonprofits in my district and work to secure the funding they need to make critical investments in our community and better serve Coloradans,” Perlmutter said in a written statement.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, asked for the least amount of funding, at $27.6 million. His most expensive request is $6.7 million for a transit center in Frisco.
Republicans disavow earmarksRepublican U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, Ken Buck of Windsor and Lauren Boebert of Garfield County didn’t submit earmarked projects.
Buck and Boebert signed a pledge against earmarks, along with 27 other Republicans, calling them a “corrupting practice.”
“Congressman Buck does not support carving out earmarks for special interests,” Buck’s spokeswoman, Lindsey Curnette, said in a written statement. “Stakeholders in Colorado’s 4th District are able to submit requests under the regular appropriations process.”
Boebert’s been a frequent critic of the spending practice, signing on to another letter in March with 24 House members and 10 senators to emphasize her opposition.
Lamborn didn’t sign either anti-earmark letter. But he also didn’t designate any projects.
The Sun inquired with Lamborn’s office about a blank webpage on his official website titled “Community Funded Projects.” The page changed to say “Page Not Found” after The Sun’s inquiry.
“As of now, Congressman Lamborn’s office will not be working on community-funded projects,” Cassandra Sebastian, Lamborn’s spokeswoman, said in an email.
That may disappoint some of the Republicans’ constituents.
Cathy Shull, executive director of Pro 15, a group that advocates for northeastern Colorado, said rural counties expect to get some benefits from the infrastructure measures being pushed by Democrats. But getting earmarks would provide even more help, she said.
“Our group is not a big fan of earmarks, but we hate being left out,” she said. “Somebody’s going to get them. A little extra boost from the federal government would have been really nice.”