Follow the moneyEarmarks work their way into the stimulus package budget

Published 26 August 2009

Whitetail, Montana, an unincorporated town with a population of 71, sits on the U.S.-Canada border; the Whitetail border checkpoint sees about three travelers a day; still, the sleepy checkpoint received $15 million under President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan; critics wants to know why

A sleepy Montana checkpoint along the Canadian border sees about three travelers a day. Still, it will get $15 million under President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan. A government priority list ranked the project as marginal, but two powerful Democratic senators persuaded the administration to make it happen.

AP reports that despite Obama’s promises that the stimulus plan would be transparent and free of politics, the government is handing out $720 million for border upgrades under a process which is both secretive and susceptible to political influence. This allowed low-priority projects such as the checkpoint in Whitetail, Montana, to skip ahead of more pressing concerns, according to documents revealed to AP.

It was not supposed to be that way. In 2004 Congress ordered DHS to create a list, updated annually, of the most important repairs at checkpoints nationwide. The Obama administration, however, continued a Bush administration practice of considering other, more subjective factors when deciding which projects get money.

The results:

  • A border station in DHS secretary Janet Napolitano’s home state of Arizona is getting $199 million, five times more than any other border station. The busy Nogales checkpoint has required repairs for years but was not rated among the neediest projects on the master list reviewed by the AP. Napolitano credited her lobbying as Arizona governor for getting the project near the front of the line for funding under the Bush administration. All it needed was money, which the stimulus provided.
  • A checkpoint in Laredo, Texas, which serves more than 55,000 travelers and 4,200 trucks a day, is rated among the government’s highest priorities but was passed over for stimulus money.
  • The Westhope, North Dakota, checkpoint, which serves about 73 people a day and is among the lowest-priority projects, is set to get nearly $15 million for renovations.

The Whitetail project, which involves building a border station the size and cost of a Hollywood mansion, benefited from two key allies, Montana Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Both pressed Napolitano to finance projects in their state. Tester’s office boasted of that effort in an April news release, crediting Baucus and his seat at the head of the “powerful Senate Finance Committee.”

Customs officials would not discuss that claim. Asked to explain Whitetail’s windfall, they provided a one-page fact sheet that contains no information about Whitetail’s needs and is almost identical to the fact sheet for every other Montana project.

It is hardly a recent phenomenon for politicians to use their influence to steer