Originally created 02/28/97

Midyear budget called a porkfest



ATLANTA - A south Georgia legislator who has faced tough political opposition in his district is about to get a special $45,000 state grant to help him maintain a hometown office for constituent services.

The grant is just one of hundreds of local projects worth more than $6 million that legislators shoved into this year's midyear - or supplemental - budget, and it was requested by the legislator who uses the office, Rep. Tommy Smith, D-Alma.

The grants are being distributed at the same time legislators debate whether to close a state hospital for mentally retarded children and slash welfare benefits to save money.

"I have a hard time looking people in the eye and saying we can't find room for mentally retarded citizens, but we can find dollars in the supplemental budget (for local projects)," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Clay, R-Marietta.

"For years, when I first got here, the supplemental budget was the feeding ground, the fishing pond," Mr. Clay said. "We've done a pretty good job over the past six or seven years of making the supplemental budget for limited uses. Now, we're going back to where we were before."

This year's supplemental budget, which is pending in a House-Senate conference committee to work out some small disagreements, is stocked with about 250 local-interest projects - more than one for each of the state's 236 legislators.

In recent years, such projects were stuffed into the upcoming year's budget, rather than the smaller supplemental spending plan designed to take care of immediate needs.

The difference this session is that lawmakers fear the money for many local projects - commonly called pork - won't be available next year.

"You've got the cash flow right now," explained Senate Appropriations Chairman George Hooks, D-Americus. "It needed to be done in the supplemental because we have the cash availability right now."

Local projects range from $25,000 to relocate a Port Wentworth ball field or $20,000 to replace a roof at Wrens City Hall.

Senate leaders want to spend $250,000 to publish a brochure for schools on the social and economic history of Georgia women, although Mr. Hooks said the budget item may end up being cut to $100,000.

No local project provokes as much on-the-record silence from senators as the $45,000 the House added for the Alma-Bacon County Department of Intergovernmental Relations - which doubles as Mr. Smith's office when he works back home.

"No comment," Mr. Hooks said.

"The House needs to answer that," said Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta, a budget negotiator, when asked about the money.

House Minority Whip Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who didn't know of the grant until questioned by a reporter, called it "unbelievable."

Mr. Smith, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, recommended the money on behalf of officials in his home Bacon County.

The "department" fields requests for aid from people needing help with government programs.

"A lot of people will call on an array of issues," said Mr. Smith, who lists the agency's phone number as his business office number. "It ranges anywhere from Social Security problems to veterans' problems."

The lawmaker said the department does not pay him and that U.S. and state lawmakers have used it in the past.

Bacon County Commission Chairman Virgil Taylor wrote House Speaker Tom Murphy, DBremen, supporting the funding and saying, "This office is probably among the most important offices in our area to our people."

The county and city have funded the department in the past, although Mr. Smith said the state occasionally chipped in some money during the 1980s.

Mr. Smith's opponents have made an issue of his use of the department's office. He was the target of a State Ethics Commission complaint alleging he used the agency for political purposes; the case was dismissed with no penalty.

"We have few state and federal agencies in Bacon County," Mr. Smith said. "This way, they can work on their problems without having to call long-distance."

Lawmakers are given a small expense allowance that can be used to defray the cost of having a local presence, but Mr. Smith is believed to be the only one with such a large presence subsidized by taxpayers.

"I represent seven counties. I'd love to have a constituent services office," said Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling. "That's a tough precedent to be setting."

House Appropriations Chairman Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, said the $45,000 grant is being made to the county, not Mr. Smith. "If the county commissioners feel that's important to them, they get the money. We don't go in and micro-manage them."

Last year, Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson, D-Savannah, obtained a grant for a minority tourism program that she helped found, which shared her office in Savannah. At the time, Senate budgetwriters said legislators are trusted to determine the merits of their own spending requests, which are not checked out independently.

The Senate never considered cutting projects like Mr. Smith's because, under a gentleman's agreement, senators don't eliminate local projects put into the budget by the House, and vice versa.

"I don't look at the House projects," Mr. Hooks said. "But we judge ours very, very strictly."

Mr. Ehrhart called Mr. Smith's grant the type of project House and Senate Democrats spread around to ensure the budget will win approval.

"It's pure pork. It's used to buy the votes to pass the budget," he said.