West Virginia

Next President Could Dam Up Money Flow to West Virginia

From the roof of the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center on Main Street, one can see the Wheeling Artisan Center to the east, the Wheeling Stamping Building to the south and Wheeling Heritage Port to the west — all flourishing, thanks to the financial help of Sen. Robert Byrd.

To say the 90-year-old senator from West Virginia has brought home the bacon during his half-century in Washington would be akin to saying Congress likes to spend taxpayers' money.

Two of Byrd's Senate colleagues, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, are threatening his ability to spend that money in places such as Wheeling, Charleston, Huntington and Morgantown. McCain wants to eliminate all congressional "earmarks" — money set aside by lawmakers for specific programs or projects back home. Obama favors less spending and more transparency.

Whoever becomes the nation's 44th president could send places such as Wheeling reeling.

"Without the government's assistance, I don't think we would have been able to develop what we have today," says Hydie Friend, executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation, which seeks to celebrate the city's place in history as the original gateway to the West.

Cutting corners

The arguments against earmarks are familiar: The government can't afford them. They're chosen on the basis of politics, not merit. Lawmakers with clout command the most cash. In some cases, they are the source of political corruption — as was the case of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican who was convicted in 2005 of taking bribes in exchange for Defense earmarks.

"What we've created here is an easy, corner-cutting way of getting money," says Leslie Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste, a non-partisan group opposed to earmarks.

That's not how West Virginia officials see it. Working in a largely blue collar state, where municipal governments and universities struggle to make ends meet, they see earmarks as a reward for entrepreneurial spirit.

Luckily, they have Byrd, who once said he wanted to be the state's "billion-dollar industry." Since 1991, he has helped send $3 billion home for highways and bridges, railroads and bus stations, research institutes and technology centers. This year, West Virginia ranked fourth in the nation for earmarks, with $179.80 per person.

"The projects I have supported in Wheeling represent the kind of common-sense investments in priorities, such as education and infrastructure, that have a real impact on the lives of everyday Americans," Byrd said in a statement. "Eliminating these domestic investments would harm communities across the country and do nothing to solve the budget crisis."

Wiping them off the map entirely would save about $16.5 billion, or 0.6% of the $2.9 trillion federal budget. That isn't likely: Douglas Holtz-Eakin, senior policy adviser to McCain, says money could still flow to localities if it competes with other needs in the regular congressional appropriations process.

"If that happens, it's by definition a national priority," Holtz-Eakin says.

The battle over earmarks that's likely to occur at the beginning of the next administration will have a major impact in Wheeling, a hardscrabble city of 30,000 on the banks of the Ohio River.

Wheeling Jesuit University, which has 1,700 students, is home to the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center and the Erma Ora Byrd Center for Education Technologies, named for the senator's late wife. Partially funded by earmarks at their inception, they receive annual earmarks for projects ranging from coal mine safety to electronic medical records. Both centers are connected to NASA. "Our notion is that earmarks are like start-up money," says J. Davitt McAteer, the university's vice president for sponsored programs.

Saving lives

Byrd's earmarks make a difference, supporters say. Armed with more than $3 million in 2005 and 2006, the technology transfer center has helped rural health clinics for the poor convert paper files into electronic records. With the click of a mouse, Executive Director Kathie Brown can call up a patient's medical history at Health Right, Wheeling's free clinic.

Until now, "it was constantly a chart chase. They always came up missing when you needed them," Brown says. "I truly believe it does save lives."

Much of Wheeling's downtown has been rebuilt with earmarks. Wheeling Heritage Port, where an amphitheater features concerts on Wednesdays and free movies on Fridays, got about $6 million. The three-story artisan center, a sunroof-lit landmark where local crafts are sold, received about $4.5 million. The Wheeling Stamping Building, an abandoned warehouse that once was a key cog in the grocery trade, was transformed into an operations center for an international law firm with the help of $2 million in earmarks.

Opponents of earmarks say the potential impact of their elimination is exaggerated. In West Virginia's case, earmarks represent less than 1% of the state's economy, says Steve Ellis of the Washington watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Residents here say earmarks are one more way of getting a return on their taxes.

"The way that I look at it is, why not Wheeling?" says Frank O'Brien, executive director of the city's Convention & Visitors Bureau. "All the money we're talking about is our money, anyway."

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