The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

The other side of pork: Questioned “earmarks” seen as vital CR bacon for new courthouse, RiverWalk

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Downtown District, Mayor Kay Halloran, Viewpoint on March 16, 2008 at 6:47 am

Local leaders can be not so unlike talented shoe salesmen and used car dealers.

And this federal and state legislative season, Cedar Rapids’ officials and leaders have sleeves rolled up and sales pitches at the ready and are hawking their needs to Iowa’s federal and state lawmakers like never before.

 It’s an effort to bring home the bacon using a tactic called an earmark that this year’s presidential contenders now are frowning on.

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is a harsh critic of earmarks, and just this last week, both Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, joined McCain on the short end of a Senate vote to put in place a moratorium on earmarks. The idea died, 71-29.

Such talk didn’t stop a core group of respected local officials and leaders – two federal appellate judges, David Hansen, a senior judge, and Michael Melloy, Mayor Kay Halloran, Ralph Russell, chairman of the board at the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and others – from bringing Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Mount Vernon, to the current Cedar Rapids federal courthouse building in recent days to show its security and space shortcomings and to ask for his special help in getting Cedar Rapids $100-million-plus in federal money to replace it.

Loebsack committed to seeking a special earmark for funding for a new courthouse, which has been jostling around on a courthouse priority list for at least a decade. The Congressman defended earmarks for essential projects like this one, arguing that replacing the current courthouse was a safety issue as well as a much-needed economic development issue for a downtown in need of a boost. Being upfront and transparent are essentials for pushing for earmarks, he said.

Likewise, the Chamber’s Russell and others did not shy away from calling what the local leaders wanted out of Loebsack anything but an earmark. (The judges were a little more judicious in their definitions.)

Earmarks have gotten an especially bad name with McCain and others, in part, because of “the bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that found a place in the earmark trough in years past. It since has been removed. The Chamber’s Russell joked that bridges can be acceptable if they are bridges to your community.

It’s little different at the Iowa Statehouse this year, where state lawmakers are seeing more of local Cedar Rapids leaders than in years past. Just last week Doug Neumann, executive director of the Downtown District, and Council member Brian Fagan were working the hallways at the Statehouse trying to unearth some or all of $30 million in state money that local leaders are seeking to help with Cedar Rapids’ downtown RiverWalk park and other downtown projects.

Mayor Halloran and others also have been down to Des Moines seeking some line or mention in a budget bill that could bring home state bacon to the city while it waits to see if federal pork might come, too.

The city employs its own Statehouse lobbyist, former lawmaker Larry Murphy of Oelwein. The Downtown District has its own legislative lobbyist this year working exclusively on downtown issues. She’s Suki Cell, who is retired from the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce where she lobbied for its interests for some years.

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