Watchdogs slam Vail Pass wildlife bridge |

Watchdogs slam Vail Pass wildlife bridge

Scott N. Miller
Shane Macomber/Vail DailyTim Phillips, President of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, is on the road this summer with the "Ending Earmarks Express," a group trying to end Congress' habit of slipping more spending into legislation without debates or hearings.

VAIL ” They come quietly. And, like a relative that won’t leave, they can get expensive.

“They” are a trick of federal spending called “earmarks,” little additions to spending bills put in with little public notice and virtually no debate. Those little additions add up to nearly $47 billion in this year’s federal budget.

A group called Americans for Prosperity is leading a fight against earmarks. To do that, a few group members are traveling the country, stopping in places that have benefited, or may benefit, from earmarks.

The caravan, called the “Ending Earmarks Express,” has stopped in placed including:

– Frankfort, Ky., which received money from the Department of Homeland Security to make the city’s bingo parlor safe from terrorists.

– Columbia, Mo., where the University of Missouri received federal money for shiitake mushroom research.

– Sparta, Tenn., got federal money for a teapot museum.

Eagle County is in line for earmarked spending, thanks to a $500,000 addition to a federal transportation bill in 2005. Since earmarks are almost always anonymous, there’s no way to know who in the state’s congressional delegation put money in the bill.

That money, if spent, will be used for an environmental study to investigate the possible benefits of a wildlife bridge over Interstate 70 atop Vail Pass. The idea is to give animals a way to cross over the freeway instead of getting run over and potentially causing crashes in which humans are injured or killed.

“We’re not here to argue about the bridge, although we’d probably oppose it. But put it in the budget, and let’s have a debate,” said Tim Phillips, President of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

“This project was funded with no discussion,” added Dr. Barry Poulson, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “This is about transparency and accountability.”

Poulson said federal spending that simply slides into the state can actually be counterproductive.

“State and local officials have learned to live with hard budget constraints because of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights,” Poulson said.

Those budget choices are usually made after public hearings, he said.

“We have to weigh the benefits versus the costs,” Poulson said. “Eventually, all citizens have to pay the costs of these projects.”

Besides the amount of money earmarks spend, which could be as much as a quarter of this year’s federal deficit, Phillips said the practice of legislators slipping extra spending into bills that have already been debated can lead to corruption and abuse.

Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California was sentenced earlier this year to eight years in prison on bribery charges after funneling federal contracts to defense contractors in his district. Many of those contracts were slipped in as earmarks, Phillips said.

So far, the “Ending Earmarks Express” has found mostly small ” or, in Vail’s case, nonexistent ” audiences. But the group is putting video on its Web site.

“We’re trying to build awareness,” Phillips said. “A lot of Americans don’t understand how earmarks work.”

And, Phillips said, spending such as the $500,000 to study a wildlife bridge can lead to even bigger earmarks later.

“This will go into the millions if it’s built,” Phillips said. “But the money hasn’t been spent yet. It’s not too late. We’re calling on Colorado’s congressional delegation to show courage and pull this out.”

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Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14624, or

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado

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