Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Texas near the top for raking in federal dollars

Oct. 9, 2007, 10:07AM
Texas near the top for raking in federal dollars
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Texas has long viewed itself as a conservative bastion, but the Lone Star State ranked third in the nation between 2000 and last year in receipt of federal dollars, raking in aid and contracts worth more than $1.2 trillion.

An analysis by a private watchdog group found that state agencies and a number of congressional districts were major beneficiaries of the federal largesse. For example:

• Rep. Ron Paul has long crusaded against a big central government. But the maverick GOP lawmaker and presidential contender also has represented a congressional district that is consistently among the top in Texas in its reliance on dollars from Washington. In the first nine months of the federal government's 2006 fiscal year alone, it received more than $4 billion in federal aid.

• The Texas Transportation Department has lately warned of a budget crunch. Yet the highway-building agency raked in more federal funds than all but three other state agencies around the nation in the first three quarters of the 2006 fiscal year: $2.9 billion
These and other findings are included in a state-by-state breakdown of federal spending by the group OMB Watch.

The analysis provides an insight into where federal dollars are flowing and underscores what Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson calls the "pork-barrel libertarianism" philosophy of many Texans.

"Texans like to think of themselves as the modern-day Marlboro Man," he said, "small government, low taxes and deregulation and 'keep your hands out of our pockets and I will take care of myself.' But they reach out to Washington every time there seems to be federal money available."

Proponents of federal aid argue that Texas — the second most populous state in the nation, behind California — deserves to get every dollar back from Washington that it pays in federal taxes.

Adam Hughes, the director of fiscal policy for OMB watch, said that the districts where federal dollars end up is more a reflection of the demographics of an area than the political ideology of its representatives.

So much of the money, he said, comes from such mandated programs as Social Security and Medicare.

He said the programs, over which lawmakers have little short-term control, help explain why Paul's district ranks among the top in Texas in receiving federal funds — more than $31 billion from 2000 through most of the 2006 fiscal year.

It is difficult to make comparisons among Texas' congressional districts before the 2006 fiscal year because a Republican redistricting plan approved by the Texas Legislature shifted a number of boundaries, including those in the Gulf Coast district represented by Paul.

But Paul's district ranked in the top five in the state in federal aid before the redistricting.

His current district, which includes Galveston and reaches into Brazoria County, draws a substantial amount of federal flood insurance payments.

A longtime libertarian, Paul has held that federal spending should be limited to what is prescribed in the Constitution. He routinely votes against appropriations bills.

Paul's spokeswoman, Rachel Mills, said the congressman is aware that his district ranks high as a recipient of federal dollars.

She said Paul will continue to support federal grants to the district,"as long as taxes are taken by force from the people of Texas."

She added, "While Congressman Paul strongly believes that federal spending is out of control, the government has made promises to people in the form of Medicare and Social Security that many rely on, and it would be wrong to break those promises."

Lawmakers have greater leverage over the doling out of private contracts by the federal government. They can insert earmarks into spending bills that direct money to companies or groups operating in their district.

From the federal government's 2001 through 2006 fiscal years, which run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, the Texas congressional district that received the most in federal contracts was represented by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land. He resigned last year amid a legal controversy.

The district ranked sixth in the country in fiscal year 2006 in receipt of federal contracts. It took in $3.6 billion then and received more than $11 billion in contracts from 2000 through this year.

Hughes at OMB Watch said DeLay was "able to exercise a lot of control in steering spending to his district."

Private contracts related to NASA's Johnson Space Center, which is in the district, likely accounted for the high level of federal spending there, Hughes said.

Texas ranked third among all states between 2000 and this year in the dollar amount of federal contracts, about $200 billion, as well as direct financial aid, which exceeded $1 trillion over that period.

In direct federal financial support, Texas trailed just two states, Florida — whose federal aid is boosted by a large number of senior citizens who qualify for Social Security and Medicare — and California.

Texas' state agencies including the Transportation Department ranked among the top nationally in gathering federal dollars.

In the first three quarters of the 2006 fiscal year when the transportation agency received $2.9 billion, only three other agencies — the Louisiana Division of Administration, the Mississippi Development Authority and the California Department of Social Services — received more. The period included the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Texas transportation officials, however, recently warned of funding shortfalls that they said could hurt the agency's ability to pay for future projects.

Chris Lippincott, a spokesman, said the federal funding for 2006 spiked in part because Texas was reimbursed by the federal government for some large projects, including Houston's Katy Freeway.

Lippincott noted that in the 2005 fiscal year the agency ranked seventh in federal funding.

Among the other state agencies receiving more federal funds that year were the California Department of Transportation, the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Department of Human Services.

From 2000 to 2006, TEA received the most federal aid of any state agency in Texas, taking in $20 billion, followed by the Transportation Department, which got $14 billion.

Baylor College of Medicine ranked ninth, with $1.9 billion, and the University of Texas Health Science Center ranked 10th, with $1.8 billion over the six-year period.

The transportation spokesman said his agency expected federal funding for Texas projects to drop for the 2007 and 2008 fiscal years.

But when asked whether the Texas Transportation Department deserved to be one of the top recipients of federal aid because of the state's large population, Lippincott replied, "Damn right."

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