Tester's bill would return Evergreen earmark to pay down federal debt


by Tristan Scott

KALISPELL – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester introduced an unusual bill Thursday, an effort to rescind an untouched $578,000 earmark to the Evergreen Sewer District and instead use the money to help pay down the national debt.

Former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns set the money aside in 2003 as an earmark appropriation for sewer improvements in the unincorporated community of Evergreen, but the fledgling project never got off the ground and the money has since languished.

The money was attached as a rider to the $124 billion Veterans Administration-Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill.

But members of the Evergreen Water and Sewer District neither submitted an application for the money nor took any formal action to request the appropriation. So when the unexpected earmark was announced, board members weren't sure how to spend the unexpected windfall.

In October, without any pending emergency projects, the sewer district decided it would return the money.

"As unusual as it is, we decided maybe we should just turn the money back and hope that it can be used to pay down the debt, even though it would be like a drop of water in the Atlantic Ocean," said Jack Fallon, president of the Evergreen Water and Sewer District Board. "Without anything emergent, why try to spend the money on something that isn't pressing?"

The money requires a 40 percent match and would require a construction project or projects that were about $1 million in size, Fallon said, meaning the earmark couldn't be used on land acquisition or feasibility studies.

"We have a number of projects that it could be used for, but none of them were urgent or required immediate attention. And we have enough cash reserves to cover the projects anyway."

But giving the money back wasn't as easy as imagined. Only Congress can officially rescind a previously approved earmark, so Tester's bill essentially "tears up a check that was never cashed," the senator said in a telephone interview.

"This is kind of like a check that has been written and never cashed. And we're ripping up the check," Tester said. "We've been asked to find ways to pay off our national debt, and I'm the only one in our delegation that has. I take a certain amount of pride in that."

The earmark was the result of a conversation one of the Evergreen Water and Sewer District Board members had with Burns in 2003, Fallon said, when construction of a wastewater treatment plant was a higher priority.

"Before the economy crashed, we were anticipating a more immediate need for a new water treatment plant and this would have been the seed money for a multimillion-dollar project," Fallon said. "There will be a need for it someday, but there is not an immediate need for it like what appeared to exist back then."

Unnecessary appropriations like the Evergreen grant are residual holdovers from what was once a rampant practice of inserting earmarks into legislation with no accountability or opportunity for debate, Tester said – a practice that his ethics overhaul helped check.

Tester condemned "the era of earmarks with no accountability," saying "Montanans deserve better than letting unwanted, unused funding go to waste."

"The folks in Evergreen are trying to do the right thing, and I'm proud to team up with them to help pay down the national debt," he said.

Tester said his efforts to bring greater transparency to government affairs have prohibited earmarks that are anonymously inserted into legislation with no accountability or opportunity for debate.

"We cut earmarks in half when I got to Washington," Tester said. "It was pretty wild and crazy before we took the majority, and we made them a lot more transparent. Now they are debated on the floor, mine just like the others."

"I just think sunlight in government makes government work better," Tester said. "That's what I did in 2007 and that's what we continue to do today."