After an 11-year absence, congressional earmarks are back, with the largest federal allocation of your tax dollars for Arizona projects being $29.3 million for the Marine Corps base in Yuma for a new swimming complex. 

The Yuma project is the largest of 80 projects and more than $120 million in federal funding coming to Arizona through congressional earmarks. The project will grow the base’s combat training operations for Marines.

Arizona Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, both Democrats, made the request for the “congressionally directed spending.” Earmarks can go to local, state and tribal governments, as well as nonprofits. 

Although it’s a bipartisan program, only the Democrats from Arizona’s congressional delegation participated in the request process. Last year, 35 Republicans, including three Arizona congressional representatives, signed a letter condemning earmarks.

“We cannot imagine a worse way to build back trust in Congress than to resurrect a system that has been roundly rejected as corruptive and wasteful for decades,” the letter stated. That denouncement came just before House Republicans voted in a March 2021 closed-door meeting to allow earmarking.

Ultimately, in the House about half of all Republicans and most Democrats made earmark requests, said Franz Wuerfmannsdobler, a senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Republicans also made 20% of the requests and received 40% of the total spending, he said.

Go deeper with AZ Luminaria: Resources for understanding earmarks

Earmarks were banned in 2011 after scandals over politicians targeting funding for pet projects that had little value to local taxpayers. The program was criticized as pork-barrel spending for personal political gain. 

Former Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake was a staunch opponent, once calling earmarks  “the currency for corruption.” Now they’re back with greater oversight reforms, and rebranded as Community Project Funding, also known as congressionally directed spending.

What we now call earmarks have always been around in legislation, since the beginning of the country, Wuerfmannsdobler said. For example, a specific amount of money for a specific lighthouse would show up in a bill.

“It was a way for (Congress) members to be more directly tied to what they were doing for their states or their districts,” he said. 

During the roughly 20 years when earmarks were commonly used, Congress members made about 5,000 requests per year. In that time, there were a few scandals that got a lot of attention, he said. Many people might remember the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere,” for example.

This year, Democrats and Republicans alike made requests for nearly 5,000 earmarks totaling about $9.7 billion of the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill passed in March.

“It’s like two thirds of a penny” on the dollar, Wuerfmannsdobler said.

Arizona ranked in the middle of the pack among states for earmark projects.

More than $36 million in earmarked funds are going to Maricopa County, including $5 million for a new Mountain Park Health Center clinic in Glendale.

Saguaro National Park East will expand to protect Rincon Creek which has been designated an “important riparian area” in Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Credit: Eegorr, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About $14.8 million is on its way to Pima County, including $4 million for land acquisitions to expand Saguaro National Park.

The boundaries of Saguaro National Park will grow by 552 acres using a $4.1 million federal earmark to acquire lands near Rincon Creek. The funding puts into motion a plan that was approved by Congress in 2020 to expand the park to protect the creek — the only perennial water source in the park.

It’s the largest of 12 earmarks projects coming to Pima County. The request was made by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat.

More than $11 million is going to projects in Pinal County, including $2 million for a new entrepreneurship and workforce training center in Superior.

See and sort Luminaria’s list of Arizona earmarks here. Arizona’s delegation is already applying for the next round of earmark projects next year.

Yuma project for Marines

Yuma was a big winner of earmarks this year, with the $29.3 million Marines project and another $1.5 million for the Yuma Multiversity Campus, a plan to build a campus facility, collaborating with state universities that offer degree programs at Yuma branches.

The project at the Marine Corps Air Station, or MCAS, will include a swimming tank, a classroom and office building, as well as lockers, showers and medical rooms to support the combat water-survival training and mandatory bi-annual swim qualifications for Marines and sailors.

The swimming complex project is in the design phase now. That will take about a year, said Capt. Brett Vannier, public affairs director at MCAS Yuma. 

“Marines have a requirement to maintain a swim qualification and currently have to go to Camp Pendleton to complete that requirement,” Vannier said in an email.

That’s more than 200 miles from MCAS Yuma.

“Having a facility here in Yuma that could accomplish that training would save numerous manpower hours and transportation costs,” he said.

Sen. Kelly is a Navy veteran and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He’s advocating for “ensuring the readiness and safety of our service members is a top priority.” 

“The funding we secured will upgrade MCAS Yuma’s facilities to better support combat water survival training and instruction on critical skills for Marines,” Kelly said in a statement to Arizona Luminaria. “We’ll continue working to ensure that our troops have the tools they need to defend and protect our country.”

The project is vital for Yuma, said Julie Engel, President and CEO of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corp. and chair of the Yuma 50, a community military-support committee.

“Any time the mission at MCAS is expanded, it is very beneficial to the community because it always brings in additional squadrons or additional manpower, and it also creates opportunities for civilian jobs to support these things as well,” she said.

With a population of 97,000, the city of Yuma is a Southern Arizona border city that benefits from the $654 million in annual economic activity tied to the Marine base and the $1.12 billion economic impact from the Army Proving Ground, according to Yuma County estimates.

The Marine base and the Army Proving Ground are the second-largest economic driver for Yuma County, right behind agriculture, Engel said.

Both bases have had significant capital investment in the past eight years as the Department of Defense has increased the missions of the bases, including a $500 million investment that came with the assignment of F-35 fighter jets to MCAS Yuma, Engel said. 

Why are earmarks back?

Here’s some context to better understand what’s going on with the return of earmarks.

Earmarks were banned by the 112th Congress — the Tea Party Republican era — as a way to eliminate wasteful spending and reduce the national debt. 

Franz Wuerfmannsdobler, senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center

But earmarks didn’t do much toward that goal, Wuerfmannsdobler said. The national debt has continued to grow and earmarks have typically been about 1% of total discretionary spending by the federal government.

“We do need to deal with our fiscal policy, but banning earmarks did nothing to address this situation,” he said.

Earmarks are a chance for members of Congress to take action to directly help their districts. Supporters of the allocations often cite the Constitution placing the “power of the purse” with Congress.

The return of earmarks came with reforms and new rules meant to increase accountability and transparency to address critics’ concerns. 

That traditional 1% is now a rule capping spending and for-profit organizations aren’t eligible for funding.

Members of Congress must post their earmarks requests on their websites and sign paperwork saying they have no personal financial interest in the projects.

The Government Accountability Office also will review a sample of projects.

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.