John McCain touts Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a force in the his battle against earmarks and entrenched power brokers, but under her leadership the state this year asked for almost $300 per person in requests for pet projects from one of McCain's top adversaries: indicted Sen. Ted Stevens.
That's more than any other state received, per person, from Congress for the current budget year, and runs counter to the reformer image that Palin and the McCain campaign are pushing. Other states got just $34 worth of local projects per person this year, on average, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based watchdog group.
Palin actually reduced the state government's requests for special projects this year to 31 earmarks totaling $198 million, about $295 person, in the wake of President Bush's demand for a cutback in earmarks.
The state government's earmark requests to Congress in her first year in office exceeded $550 million, more than $800 per resident. But there's only so much Palin could do with state bureaucrats used to a free-flowing spigot of federal dollars from Washington.
"I have championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress," Palin said in her vice presidential campaign trail debut last week.
Palin's current request to Stevens, "would still put Alaska No. 1," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that tracks earmarks closely.
The McCain campaign said Tuesday that Palin realized that Alaska was too reliant on earmarks and ordered state officials to cut back on their requests. It also said Obama requested nearly $1 billion in earmarks over three years for Illinois — a state with nearly 20 times the population of Alaska.
"We cannot and must not rely so heavily on federal government earmarks," Palin told state legislators in January.
Obama hasn't asked for any earmarks this year as he and Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton maneuvered on the issue. Last year, he asked for $311 million worth, about $24 worth for every Illinoisan.
For his part, McCain doesn't seek pork projects.
Budget watchdogs allied with McCain have annually railed against Stevens, Alaska's senior senator, and his state's addiction to earmarks, those locally popular pet projects added to the federal budget by senators and House members. McCain and Stevens are not friends, and the two men have openly clashed on the Senate floor over earmarks.
In addition Palin's requests on behalf of the state government this year, 124 public and private entities in Alaska have asked Stevens for earmarks this year.
In her earlier political career as mayor of Wasilla, Palin hired a private lobbyist to help the tiny town secure earmarks from Stevens, entering Washington's "pay to play" culture in which lobbyists, campaign contributions and lawmakers are intertwined.
The town obtained 14 earmarks, totaling $27 million between 2000-2003, according to data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Federal lobbying records show that Wasilla hired the firm of Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh in 2000 to arrange "funding of city projects." The signature on the registration form is that of Steven W. Silver, a former top aide to Stevens, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee on and off between 1997 and 2005.
The firm initially was paid $24,000 a year, an amount that increased to $36,000 in 2001. The firm has continued to work for the town government since Palin left as mayor in 2002. Silver gave $2,000 to Stevens' Northern Lights political action committee in 1999, according to federal records.
Stevens was indicted in July for failing to disclose $250,000 in gifts from VECO Corp., an Alaskan oil services company.
At the same time, Palin's campaign trail braggadocio last week that she told Washington "'thanks but no thanks' on that Bridge to Nowhere" didn't tell the whole story.
In fact, Palin was for the infamous $398 million bridge — to connect the town of Ketchikan to an island with 50 residents and an airport on it — before she was against it, speaking in favor of it during her 2006 race for governor.
Alaska has become so accustomed to largess flowing from Congress through Stevens that most of Palin's earmark requests this year — such as studies of Alaskan fisheries, grants to combat drug trafficking, and rural airport upgrades — simply keep ongoing programs going. Among her requests was $150,000 to pay the travel bills of state and fisheries industry representatives on the boards that implement North Pacific fisheries agreements.
"They've definitely become addicted to earmarks," said Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "And Gov. Palin has continued in at least some form that addiction."