WASHINGTON — With budget watchdog groups charging that a proposed $60.4 billion Hurricane Sandy relief package is larded with spending for projects unrelated to the storm, some local officials appear to be taking their cues accordingly.
The measure, which Senate Democrats succeeded in pushing through on Friday, came after Republicans tried unsuccessfully to put forth a smaller $24 billion package to pay for immediate recovery efforts through the spring while full damage estimates still were being tallied. But with the measure receiving unanimous support from all 48 Senate Democrats who voted as well as from two Independents and 12 Republicans, the bill passed easily by a 62-32 vote.
Six senators including Democrat Frank Lautenberg, of New Jersey, did not participate in Friday's vote.
The measure still faces uncertain prospects in the House, where GOP leaders appear reluctant to move quickly on a big spending bill while a lame-duck Congress is focused on talks over the so-called fiscal cliff of impending tax hikes and deep cuts in defense spending.
But the Senate bill, which some critics have dubbed "Sandy Scam," is likely to receive further scrutiny for big-ticket items that include, among other things, money for an Amtrak expansion project and government cars and for fisheries in Alaska and Mississippi. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had sought to strip the fisheries funding from the bill, but the amendment failed.
‘The ultimate taxpayer rip-off'
In New Jersey, which saw more than 72,000 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed by Sandy, Gov. Chris Christie had estimated the state's total damage from the storm at $36.9 billion.
That amount drew strong condemnation by Americans for Prosperity State Director Steve Lonegan, who said in a press release that, based on the math, it came to "nearly $4,200 for every man, woman and child in the state."
Calling the cost for the entire $60.4 billion package "so ridiculous as to demand scrutiny," Lonegan decried the bill as "the ultimate rip-off of the American taxpayer" and "an excuse for a free-for-all on the U.S. Treasury."
"(President Obama) should explain exactly how this money will be spent and how many New Jersey residents should expect a check for $4,200 or more," Lonegan said. "Hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans who had to pay to remove damaged trees, or who lost power and had to stay in motels, or who had property damage covered by insurance will not collect one dime from this."
The Club for Growth, an influential conservative group, also had urged opposition to the package, which it described as overpriced and laden with pork.
Among other "questionable" spending items in the Senate bill that critics have decried are $5.3 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers that has no accompanying statement of priorities on how to spend the money; $11.7 billion to help repair New York City's subways; $125 million for the Department of Agriculture's emergency program for restoring watersheds damaged by wildfires and drought; $2 million for roof repairs at the Smithsonian Institution; and $50 million in subsidies for tree planting on private properties.
The bill also includes $188 million for an Amtrak project to curb railroad bottlenecks in the Northeast. The project was on the table long before Sandy hit in late October, according to an analysis of the bill by the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"When you start playing fast and loose with federal coffers, it feeds public cynicism and undermines the real needs in the bill," said Stephen Ellis, the group's vice president.
Other items in the bill, according to Ellis, include $150 million for fisheries in Mississippi, Alaska and New England unrelated to Sandy; $821 million for dredging projects in areas hit by Sandy and other natural disasters; $20,000 to buy a new car for the Department of Justice's inspector general; $10.8 billion for the Federal Transportation Administration; $4 million for repairs at the Kennedy Space Center; $3.3 million for the Plum Island Animal Disease Center; and cancellation of loans related to Hurricane Katrina.
Getting New Jersey its fair share
Sussex County Freeholder Director Phil Crabb, while not taking a position on the amount of aid requested by Christie or on the dollar amount of the bill itself, said he had "every confidence that Governor Christie's actions are in the best interest of the state of New Jersey."
But Freeholder Rich Vohden, who said his two sisters experienced firsthand the wrath of Sandy at their homes along Barnegat Bay and Ortley Beach, said there was good reason to be concerned about Hurricane Sandy being used to justify expenditures unrelated to the storm, as he said happened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"They have to justify the spending and make the people receiving the funding accountable," Vohden said.
Vohden also leaped to the defense of Rep. Scott Garrett, R-5th Dist., who, despite having authored a letter calling for federal disaster assistance in the aftermath of Sandy, got slammed just prior to the election by his Democratic opponent, Adam Gussen, for not joining the other members of the state delegation in signing a letter calling for additional federal aid.
In robocalls and public comments just prior to the election, Gussen had accused Garrett of choosing to "fight against our families" and of using "his radical small government ideology to defend blocking critical aid."
But a spokesman for Gussen softened those remarks Friday and said a prudent approach made sense.
"To push through a bill that says we're for Sandy relief but that has pork is just dishonest," said Gerald Reiner, a spokesman for Gussen.
Attempts on Friday to elicit a comment from the offices of Garrett and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11th Dist., were unsuccessful. However, a statement on Frelinghuysen's website said, in part, that he looked "forward to ensuring that (the bill) meets the needs of New Jersey and the region, in terms of both process and substance."
A statement from the office of state Sen. Steve Oroho and Assembly members Alison McHose and Gary Chiusano, all R-24th Dist., noted the storm's impact on New Jersey and that New Jersey taxpayers regularly send more to the federal government than they receive back.
"It is extremely important that any federal aid package for Hurricane Sandy include a very fair share for New Jersey," they said, noting that some estimates showed New Jersey receiving as little as 61 cents back for every dollar sent to Washington. Still, they added that "the devil is in the details" and that any "attempts to dump unrelated funding into a Hurricane Sandy aid package is irresponsible political maneuvering."
The three legislators further said they were confident in the ability of the local members of Congress to hammer out the details properly.
Spending bill may be pared down
To court votes on the Senate bill, Democrats last week broadened some of the bill's provisions to cover damage from Hurricane Isaac, which struck the Gulf Coast earlier this year. Proponents say most of the $60.4 billion bill -- $47.4 billion -- is for immediate help for victims and other recovery and rebuilding efforts. The aid is intended to help states rebuild public infrastructure like roads and tunnels and help thousands of people displaced from their homes.
"It will actually put people to work in their own communities, rebuilding their own communities," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But Republicans have criticized the Democratic bill for allocating $13 billion for fortifying mass transit systems and for other projects intended to protect against future storms. Led by Coburn and by GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Senate Republicans have said that however worthy such projects may be, they are not urgently needed and should be considered by Congress in the usual appropriations process next year.
The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that only about $9 billion of the $60.4 billion proposed by Democrats would be spent over the next nine months. The CBO analysis indicated that much of the money would go to large infrastructure projects that often require years to complete, but congressional Republicans have said the CBO estimate of such drawn-out spending undercuts the urgency with which Democrats have attempted to secure passage.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky, for his part, said that after reviewing the Senate bill, members of Congress might want to begin with a smaller aid package for immediate recovery needs and wait until more data could be collected about storm damage before approving additional money for next year.
More than $2 billion in federal funds has been spent so far on relief efforts in New Jersey and in 10 other states and the District of Columbia. FEMA's disaster relief fund still has about $4.3 billion, and officials have said that is enough to pay for recovery efforts into early spring.
Lonegan, who previously served as mayor of Bogota for 12 years, acknowledged a legitimate federal role in disaster relief but decried what he called "the open-ended disaster aid spigot."
"Few residents who suffered damage from the storm will see even one dime from this aid package, but every one of them will pay to support this open-ended taxpayer rip-off," he said. "If Congress is serious about cutting these deficits, they will bring this package down to a tiny fraction of what it is today and end the practice of turning disasters into money-making opportunities for politically connected insiders."
Written By: Eric Obernauer and Associated Press
Original Publication URL: http://www.njherald.com/story/20467428/some-critical-of-pork-in-sandy-aid-billDiscussion