Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2014

Currently: 53° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

Is $45 million for Nevada an earmark? Reid says no, Nebraska senator says yes

A Nebraska senator is going after Sen. Harry Reid about $45 million for a rail project that he’s trying to free up for the Nevada Department of Transportation to put to some other use.

Why does Sen. Mike Johanns care how Nevada spends $45 million the federal government budgeted ages ago? Because, he says, it's an earmark, and earmarks are a no-no.

Early in 2011, President Barack Obama promised to veto any bill that contained an earmark.

(An earmark, or a “congressionally directed spending item,” is defined under Rule 44 of the Standing Rules of the Senate as “a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Senator providing, authorizing, or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority ... to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula-driven or competitive award process.”)

In other words, Johanns says, because it’s only Nevada getting this money, and not every state getting some sort of freed-up funds in the surface transportation bill the Senate is currently considering, it’s an earmark.

Reid’s office disagrees, arguing it can’t be an earmark when they’re not asking for any money Nevada doesn’t already have.

“There is no new spending in this provision,” said Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman, adding that the change in the transportation bill just “provides Nevada with additional flexibility and supports more than 1,500 jobs in a state that has the highest unemployment rate in the country.”

The exact language in the transportation bill before the Senate is murky. (Follow along as we now slog through the federal code.)

On its surface, the provision under consideration would seem to be a directive to all states: “Notwithstanding any other provision of the law,” the section reads, “any unobligated balances of amounts required to be allocated to a State by section 1307 (d)(1) of the SAFETEA-LU...shall instead be made available to such State for any purpose eligible under section 133(c) of title 23, United States Code.”

But if you crack open the SAFETEA-LU law of 2005, section 1307(d)(1) only refers to one state - Nevada - and one project: a proposed maglev rail project.

A high-speed rail system that operates by magnetic levitation of trains above the track was at one time the preferred option for Nevada’s planned route between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

However, Nevada’s not the only state that benefits from the SAFETEA-LU bill. “The MAGLEV project between Las Vegas and Primm, Nevada” is only half of section 1307(d)(1): it also says that half the “amounts” in that section are “for a MAGLEV project located east of the Mississippi River.”

While there are a few proposed maglev routes, none have been developed and aren’t likely to be in the near future as the technology is seen as prohibitively expensive.

That means there’s money that could also be converted to other purposes under the direction Reid has written into the transportation bill.

But not if Johanns, a Republican, succeeds with his amendment.

“It’s a matter of trust,” Johanns said in a statement Wednesday. “The President said he would not sign any legislation containing an earmark, and Congress has promised the American people a highway bill without earmarks...we need a highway bill signed into law and that cannot happen -- according to the President -- with this earmark.”

The White House didn’t immediately weigh in when asked whether they agreed with Johanns that this is an earmark, or with Reid that it is not.

But Nevada Department of Transportation officials say they can find a use for the money.

NDOT Director Susan Martinovich said Wednesday that the department would most likely put the funds, should the transportation bill pass, toward the Interstate-215/McCarran Airport Connector -- a priority project with an $107 million pricetag.

“$45 million? Obviously that would help,” added NDOT spokesman Scott Magruder. “We’ve got so many projects out there, anything would help.”

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 3 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. It's only pork when someone else is getting it.

  2. Holy cow, Batman! NDOT bureaucrats say they can "find a use for the money!" What a surprise. Bureaucratic drones glomming onto taxpayer dollars! Never saw that one coming!

  3. This money will be used, And I'd Rather it say in Nevada for a Highway Project instead of going to North Carolina to build a Teacup Museum. Most of these posters are just looking to Bash Sen Reid for ANY reason since he is a Democrat. They don't understand that they would still be driving on Dirt Roads had it not been for Sen. Reid and his ability to make sure Nevada gets it's fair share back of the Tax Money they send to Washington.