An Alaska politician with an uncompromised reputation as an anti-pork crusader? Turns out it is too good to be true.
As we noted last week, Gov. Sarah Palin's reformer credentials are one of her main selling points as John McCain's running mate. As she trumpeted in her speech last Friday, Palin is the governor who "told Congress thanks, but no thanks, on that bridge to nowhere.... I have championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress."
Except, as quite a few news outlets have pointed out, Palin had actually supported the project while campaigning for governor. And though she opted not to use the $200 million originally earmarked to build the bridge to tiny Ketchikan's airport, that money still went to Alaska for use on other projects. Her ultimate opposition to the project seemed practical, rather than principled. She explained that it seemed unlikely that Congress would approve any more funds to complete the $398 million bridge.
Another complication: Back in 2000, four years into her term as mayor of Wasilla, Palin oversaw the hiring of a lobbyist to land earmarks for her town of 6,700. The move showed Palin was wise to how the game is played: the town hired a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK). With that access, the spigot turned on: The town landed $26.9 million in federal funds from 2000 to 2003.
As the Los Angeles Times reports today, Palin's history of earmark advocacy once clashed with McCain's history of criticizing pork. On three occasions when Palin was mayor, earmarks for Wasilla appeared on McCain's "pork list," a catalog of "objectionable" spending produced by his office. Among the targeted projects, the Times reports: "$1 million in a 2002 spending bill for an emergency communications center in town -- one that local law enforcement has said is redundant and creates confusion."
The McCain camp responded to the Times' story by arguing that Palin had been forced to push for pork and had been "disgusted" that small towns like hers were dependent on earmarks. It is true that municipalities routinely retain lobbyists to secure such federal largesse. But as the Times points out, rather than finding herself trapped in a system, Palin seems to have been the first mayor of Wasilla to have the idea.
And then, lastly, there's the third complication: This year as governor, Palin requested nearly $200 million in earmarks (about $300 per Alaskan). In keeping with Alaska's historical reliance on pork, it's a haul that would exceed any other state's per capita.
Her first year in office, the state requested $550 million in earmarks ($800 per Alaskan). (For comparison, the AP reports that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) requested $311 million in earmarks in 2007, about $24 worth for every Illinoisan. He made no requests in 2008.) Palin's office says she cut back what she could. Approximately two-thirds of the requested earmarks for this year would continue to fund programs started by previous earmarks, according to the state's request (PDF).