Saturday, March 21, 2009

Earmarking crickets / Special interest allocations draw fire, but Utahns with cricket trouble love this one

GROUSE CREEK -- Big bugs with bulging goggle eyes swarmed the remote ranching outpost of Grouse Creek like a biblical plague. Each of the past four summers, the hungry critters known as Mormon crickets have marched by the tens of thousands over grassy hillsides, past juniper trees, across dirt roads and through ranch houses. The noisy insects have devoured crops, frightened children and threatened families' livelihoods in the tranquil high desert.
"It's almost like an Alfred Hitchcock movie," said Brent Tanner, who helps run a large cattle ranch in Grouse Creek that has been in his family since the 1870s. "You just see swarms of these large crickets that move in and can be devastating to crops, and certainly are very irritating. They'll just crawl right into your house, get up on your walls. It's enough to drive a person totally insane."
And this summer, scientists say, it's a sure bet Mormon crickets will be back.
So to the 80-odd folks who live in Grouse Creek, the $1 million congressional earmark secured by their state's junior senator to kill the insects is hardly wasteful pork, as it has been demonized. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and television comedian Jon Stewart may lampoon it as an egregious example of government spending, but to Grouse Creek, the earmark is salvation.
"Everything that's green is just gone," said Tanner's older brother, Jay, who described what happens after Mormon crickets hatch on federal land, migrate onto his family's Della Ranches and eat up acres of grass, alfalfa and cattle feed.
The passage of the $410 billion omnibus spending bill rekindled the debate in Washington over lawmakers' long-standing and fiercely guarded practice of appropriating public money for pet projects. The legislation contained more than 8,500 earmarks, which together accounted for roughly 2 percent of the bill's overall spending.

But since the bill was introduced last month, McCain, among the most vocal critics of earmarks, has highlighted projects he considers pork-laden. Opining on his Twitter page about the Mormon crickets earmark, he asked, "Is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?"
Earmarks do not mandate additional spending. Rather, they require federal agencies to set aside portions of their budgets for specific projects. Critics say this process has long been ripe for corruption. McCain recently called the spending provisions a "gateway drug" to possibly illegal forms of influence peddling.
When it comes to Mormon crickets, there is no quid pro quo.
"Who gave me the campaign contribution with respect to Mormon crickets?" Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, the earmark's sponsor, said in an interview. "The answer is, obviously, nobody."
Since 2002, earmarks of $350,000 to $1.1 million have been aimed at cricket control, and local officials say the controls appear to be working. At their recent peak in 2004, Mormon crickets infested about 2.8 million acres, a figure that declined to 37,500 acres in 2008, according to state data.
But officials say the insects are difficult, if not impossible, to kill off. "We don't believe eradication is possible," said Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
State officials kill the insects by laying poisonous bait -- rolled oats laced with insecticide -- around populated areas and private ranches, Lewis said. The cost is shared equally among the federal government, state government and landowners.
Lately, ground zero for Mormon crickets has been Grouse Creek. There, residents said, the cricket swarms have been so dense that ranchers driving over them on a road leave behind a gooey layer as slick as ice. Townspeople keep brooms by their front doors to sweep away crickets when they open their doors.
There have been economic consequences, too. In ravaging pastures, Mormon crickets leave cattle without feed, dealing a blow to Utah's agricultural economy, which Bennett valued at $340 million. So spending $1 million on cricket control to protect the area's cattle industry should be an easy choice, Bennett argues.
Bennett, a top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, sponsored 64 earmarks totaling $93.9 million in the latest bill, ranking him 41st among 100 senators, according to the anti-earmarks group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Bennett said his earmark for Mormon cricket control is "as defensible a one that they'll ever find. It's good public policy, it's good economic policy, and it's the kind of thing a representative from the West should do."
Critics argue that lawmakers should not have unchecked authority to allocate public dollars and that these decisions should be left to federal agencies.
"I don't doubt that Utah has a serious problem with the Mormon cricket," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), one of three Democratic senators who voted against the spending bill. "I'm just not sure that it's fair to the other states. ... I think the process of earmarking is too arbitrary."
For weeks, ranchers in Grouse Creek have listened to McCaskill, McCain and talk show hosts rail against pork-barrel spending. But they politely disagree.
"I voted for Senator McCain and I know he's straight down the line on no earmarks, but I would disagree with him," said Brent Rose, 53, who tends to 1,000 cattle on his family's sprawling ranch.
"I would ask, 'Doesn't the government have a responsibility to control the pests that come off of their land?' "

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