UConn could lose significant funding as earmarks come under attack

WASHINGTON–The University of Connecticut spent $340,000 to lobby federal officials so far this year, an effort that’s helped the school snag more than $10 million in earmarks to fund key projects. But all that money may get zeroed out by the lame-duck Congress.

That’s because lawmakers are likely to ditch their pending appropriations bills–which now contain more than a half-dozen earmarks for UConn–in favor of a short-term funding bill for fiscal year 2011 that will keep spending levels relatively flat.

Choi, Mun Young, UConn 11-23-10

UConn’s Mun Young Choi: ‘This is a very important source of funding’

And in the next Congress, Republicans are vowing to ban all earmarks from spending bills, as lawmakers craft fresh measures for fiscal year 2012. Democrats may still seek earmarks, but it could be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to secure such funding in the face of stiff GOP opposition.

“It’s not just that the go-go years of earmarking are done,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group that has led the charge against earmarks. “Earmarking is going to end as we know it.”

UConn is hardly the only institution in the state that would be affected by this policy shift. Many cities and towns across Connecticut, along with private businesses and non-profit entities, have requested earmarks from Congress.

Watertown, for example, is seeking $300,000 for an emergency communications system for its first responders for fiscal year 2011. The Nature Conservancy in Middletown has pushed for $200,000 to do ecosystem restoration. And there’s a $2 million spending provision pending in a House defense bill for Aero Gear Inc., a Windsor-based design and manufacturing firm.

But universities have typically been among the biggest beneficiaries of earmarks, often outranked only by defense companies. And no other institution in Connecticut has as many disparate requests on the line right now.

“As a research university, this is a very important source of funding for us,” Mun Young Choi, dean of UConn’s Department of Engineering, which was slated to get a $2.5 million earmark for fuel cell research in the now-stalled 2011 energy appropriations bill. (Choi prefers the term “congressionally-directed programs” to “earmarks.”)

The fuel cell funding is just one of at least eight provisions pending in current bills for UConn, items that will almost certainly not make it to final passage if this Congress fails to complete a full-fledged budget and the next Congress holds firm on its earmark prohibition.

Some of the other UConn provisions include:

  • $3.65 million for buildings and facilities at the university’s Center of Excellence for Vaccine Research;
  • $3.2 million for university researchers studying ways to help U.S. soldiers recover from catastrophic bone injuries;
  • $365,000 for a new Center for Energy and Environmental Law.

Choi said that both the immediate threat of a stop-gap, earmark-free spending bill this year and the longer-term prospect of a complete earmark ban are sparking serious concern among top researchers and administrators at the university.

“If those two come to pass, it will really place us in a difficult position,” Choi said. “We actually use [that funding] for research and development that’s leading to new innovations and scholarly work. There’s a real value to it, so not having access to it will impact how effective we can be.”

Choi still has plenty of allies making that argument on Capitol Hill, even if their power to seek such funding is severely limited.

“An outright ban would be damaging for the many organizations, schools, and others in our state that depend on these funds,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Critics say the process of doling out earmarks is often determined more by which lawmakers have the most political muscle than by which projects are the most meritorious. And there’s no question the process had led to abuses, not to mention political ridicule–most notably, the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere“.

With that backdrop, and with the pressure on Congress to rein in spending, it’s no wonder Republicans in both the House and Senate have vowed to forgo any earmarks in the next Congress. That pledge is non-binding, and some in the GOP have already signaled they don’t plan to abide. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has also called for curbing earmarks, although he hasn’t committed to vetoing bills that include them.

But that could leave Democrats in the Senate, where the party will still controls a majority, out on a limb in their continued defense and use of the earmark process.

“You have a pretty cataclysmic shift on the overall topic, and it’s hard to see how we can go back to anything close to the way things were being done before,” said Ellis.

Josh Zembik, a spokesman for Rep. Joe Courtney, D-3rd District, said his boss is already thinking about new ways to help the state win needed funds. As with others in the delegation, Zembik said Courtney’s requests are heavily vetted to make sure they’re legitimate and will fund high priority projects.

But given the current climate, Zembik conceded, that’s no longer enough. “He’s looking to find other ways” to help Connecticut interests get federal funding. Competitive grants are the most obvious avenue, he added.

UConn already seeks myriad federal grants, but that funding is limited, UConn officials said.

The earmark funding “provides one component of a balanced portfolio” of revenue, Choi said. He added that he and other researchers often use the congressionally-directed programs to leverage other funding from private industry and make the university more competitive when seeking grants.

For example, the School of Engineering is using earmark funding from last year for partnerships with UTC power and FuelCell Energy to improve fuel cell technology.  “We’ve actually used these funds very effectively to develop the foundation to become more competitive,” Choi said.

With future earmarks now in jeopardy, he said, those efforts could be interrupted, along with research being conducted by doctoral and undergraduate students.

“There’s a lot of value in it,” Choi said. If lawmakers examine these provisions closely, “I think they will find this is something that will be continually beneficial.”