A vote against the stimulus, then a race for the cash

Economy » Utah GOP request money for state projects.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sen. Bob Bennett not only voted against the $787 billion stimulus act, he also blasted it as a squandered opportunity to fix the economic downturn.

"Unfortunately, the only thing this bill will stimulate is the national debt," Bennett argued Feb. 13 as the Senate gave final approval to the historic measure.

But, in a series of letters dated two days prior, Bennett wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu asking him to pay special attention to several Utah projects as he doled out billions in stimulus money.

"I am writing to request your support for a number of projects in my home state of Utah that I believe merit your department's attention," Bennett wrote, adding that he would "greatly appreciate" any funding considerations for his state.

All four of Utah's Republicans in Congress voted against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earlier this year, and all of them then used congressional stationary in an attempt to nab stimulus cash for the state. Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, who voted for the stimulus, also sought funds in letters to federal departments.

Utah's lawmakers sent these letters despite repeated promises from President Barack Obama that the stimulus bill wouldn't include pet projects and that the money wouldn't be awarded based on the desires of lobbyists or home-state politicians.

"President Obama made it clear from the beginning that all Recovery Act funding is to be strictly merit-based," said White House spokesman Adam Abrams, "and agencies are expected to live by that commitment when making awards."

But that didn't stop Bennett and Utah's other members of Congress from trying -- although a detailed review by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that so far they have had no success, after the bill became law, in steering any stimulus money to a Utah project.

Seeking funds » The Tribune filed records requests with multiple federal agencies and departments earlier this year seeking any correspondence or meetings between the state's members of Congress and administration officials regarding the stimulus.

The searches turned up dozens of letters to the secretaries of Energy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and Transportation as well as to the administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. All but four came from Bennett.

The senator shipped off more than 40 letters requesting hundreds of millions of dollars in projects.

One government watchdog says if Bennett really felt the stimulus would foist a fiscal burden on future generations "then it is the height of hypocrisy to turn around and take the money."

"It was thoroughly predictable: The stimulus was a massive river of unaccountable pork-barrel cash -- most of it anyway -- and there was no way that politicians, especially this crop, were going to allow that river to flow by their doors without trying to divert a tributary of cash to their pet projects," said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for the Washington-based nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste.

Only two of the hundreds of projects championed by Bennett or Utah's other federal lawmakers have received any stimulus funding. Those two were road projects for Park City and Logan, and funding came unrelated to letters Bennett sent to Interior and Energy.

But the senator makes no apologies for trying to bring home some stimulus bacon.

"If I could have won the overall battle and had [the stimulus] killed, I'd have been delighted," he said. "But as long as the Congress decided they were going to spend the money anyway, why not ask them to spend it on things that make sense instead of many of the other projects that were there."

Bennett focused on areas where he has the most clout -- energy and water. He is the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee over those areas, which allows him to affect billions of dollars.

From this perch, he tried to influence where the stimulus money went even before the bill became law.

He was successful in getting $50 million for the Central Utah Project written into the law, but failed in a bid to set aside $50 billion that some critics said was meant to help the nuclear power industry.

Wish lists » The senator's staff set up a special meeting for mayors in Salt Lake County to hear how they could get a slice of the stimulus early in the year, said Murray Mayor Daniel Snarr.

Several mayors, followed by county officials and some quasi-government entities, then sent wish lists to Bennett and others in Utah's delegation seeking stimulus funds.

Bennett forwarded those requests with a standard cover letter to the various departments - - --- even though it was clear stimulus money would come through standard formulas or grant programs.

"I recognize it was a long shot and the chance that the money would go there was a fairly small one," Bennett said, "but you try to get what you can."

The letters from local leaders started as a trickle but, when word spread, it became a flood.

"As I was hearing all these cities making requests," Davis County Commissioner Brett Millburn recalled, "I thought we ought to be in that loop, too."

Some cities drafted wish lists for federal dollars at the urging of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Others simply jumped on the stimulus bandwagon.

"Cities were just throwing stuff at the delegation" hoping they could help deliver, said Lincoln Shurtz, director of legislative affairs for the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

For his part, Bennett says he simply was a conduit, passing on requests to departments to ensure his constituents weren't left out.

His office was so bent on getting administration eyes on Utah projects, it often forwarded letters to departments entirely unrelated to the project's focus. At one point, his office faxed a letter to the Energy Department seeking support "for a number of projects" in Utah but forgot to attach any actual projects.

He even forwarded a letter from state transportation officials that he received as a heads up that the state was ready to go. That was news to John Njord, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

"I did not ask him to forward it nor do I remember expecting him to forward it," he said. "Our communication to him was to tell him we were ready."

UDOT did receive stimulus money, based on established federal formulas.

Bennett's office also sent 15 letters to the EPA seeking funding and received identical responses saying spending decisions would take place on the state level.

EPA sent a copy of each letter to Bill Sinclair at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

"We welcome input from our congressional delegation about communities in need," Sinclair said. "But really, I'm not sure they had much impact."

Sinclair said no member of Congress from Utah contacted his office seeking to directly influence stimulus funding.

One of the letters Bennett forwarded came from Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey, who sought $10 million to help restore the Ogden River. And, like all of the rest, the northern Utah city has not yet received a dime of stimulus for that project.

But Godfrey has not given up. He said he has had numerous conversations with the senator's staff in recent months, hoping to snag some stimulus crumbs or secure funding through some other means.

Still, Godfrey is unsure what impact Bennett can have on the stimulus.

"It has been so ill-defined," he said. "It is hard to know."

More requests » Utah's other congressional members sought funds, too, although not in nearly the same quantities as Bennett.

Sen. Orrin Hatch and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz sent the Interior Department a letter on behalf of the Provo River Water Users Association seeking $95 million in funds, while Matheson pushed for money for national parks in Utah.

The Provo River association didn't receive any funds but all of Utah's national parks got some cash as did several of the state's national monuments. It's unclear whether Matheson had any impact on those funds.

"Every congressman ought to know what's going on in his or her congressional district, and I think it's important to make sure that they advocate for their district," Matheson said. "I don't have a problem with that as long as it's done in a transparent way and these letters are all a matter of public record."

Hatch disputes any criticism that it's hypocritical to lobby for money he voted against. The senator sent an exhaustive list of potential Utah projects to then-President-elect Obama in January before the Senate's stimulus debate.

"Once it becomes law, it's something that anybody can make requests on," Hatch said. "We'd be foolish not to make requests if we feel deeply about anything."



The paper (money) chase

Cities and counties send letters in December and January to Utah's federal delegation pointing out their ready-to-go projects.

Sen. Bob Bennett forwards dozens of letters Feb. 11 to various departments asking the Cabinet secretaries to support Utah projects.

Senate gives final passage of the stimulus act Feb. 13. Bennett and Hatch vote no.

President Barack Obama issues a memo in March ordering departments to ensure projects are "merit-based."

No project to date that was the subject of the letters has received funding because of the efforts of Utah's delegation.