Feb. 14, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Highway Money Fight Shifts to States

Andrew Satter/Roll Call
Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica has said he is committed to passing a full reauthorization of the nation’s surface transportation law, but he faces an uphill battle.

With a highway bill stalled and a ban on earmarks in Congress, some Washington, D.C., lobbyists are telling their clients to staff up for local battles over federal transportation funds.

The moratorium on lawmaker-directed spending items known as earmarks has dramatically changed what lobbyists can do for their clients on Capitol Hill and, in turn, placed a new responsibility on their counterparts outside the Beltway who are preparing to fight for projects that were once guaranteed in Washington.

“We’ve turned around to our clients and said, ‘Now, it’s time for state-level lobbyists to go to work,’” said Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist at Marlowe & Co., whose clients include San Clemente, Calif., Sarasota, Fla., and counties in six other states. “States are where the money is headed now, so that’s where they’ve got to put their resources.”

Marlowe has had to deliver this message to most of his clients — cities that were hoping the new highway bill would set money aside for their highways and bridges.

Highway bills are historically some of the most pork-packed pieces of legislation, and lobbyists are working furiously to find new strategies to get their clients a piece of what is almost certainly a shrinking budget.

The House last year passed a ban on earmarks, and in February, Senate appropriators agreed to a moratorium, though some Washington lobbyists are not convinced that the chamber will follow suit when it comes to the transportation bill. President Barack Obama has also said he will veto any bill containing earmarks that comes to his desk.

Earmarks have long been presidential pet peeves. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan vetoed the highway bill because it contained 152 earmarks, only to watch them proliferate in the years to come. The last transportation reauthorization bill passed, in 2005, contained 6,400 earmarks worth more than $24 billion, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense. The highway bill prior to that, passed in 1999, had just 1,850 earmarks worth $9.4 billion.

Without earmarks, lobbyists are focusing on promoting policy decisions that could lead to the funding of their clients’ projects and inserting language into grant programs that will give them priority. But, in the end, more checks are likely to be written at the state level.

“We’re going to see more money going though formulas and somebody’s got to allocate that money,” said Tim Lovain, a Democrat at Denny Miller Associates, referring to the formulas that determine how much money goes to each state.

The days of fashioning language that could apply to only one project have passed, he added.

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