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MN earmarks have gone to transportation

When it comes to earmarks, not all pork is created equal.

Congressional "earmarks" -- federal money obtained by lawmakers for projects in their districts, has become a dirty word these days, as their numbers increased 10-fold from 1995 to 2005, and their annual cost approached $30 billion.

Earmarks are different than regular budget items in that they are inserted into appropriations bills, with little scrutiny, during the budget process.

The controversy over earmarks has largely to do with the degree to which they contribute to the public good.

Minnesota's earmark profile is a bit unusual, according to the fedgazette, a publication by the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis that uses figures from Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that has tracked earmarks for years.

For one thing, Minnesota is a little better at bringing home the bacon -- with a median earmark of $2.2 million compared to $1.5 million for other states in the region.

This is due in part to the fact that 62 percent of Minnesota's earmark money has gone to transportation projects -- a much higher percentage than the regional median of 28 percent -- and transportation projects are generally expensive.

If you're thinking James Oberstar, you're right.

Oberstar is the 17-term representative who chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee and has taken good care of his state.

His earmarks have built projects "from bike paths to airport runways to highway bridges," according to the fedgazette. The most expensive single earmark in the 9th Federal Reserve District was the $67 million grant made in 2003 for the Minneapolis light rail transit system.

The fiscal year 2008 bill contains $55 million for the Northstar Corridor rail project to relieve congestion on Highway 10 going into the Twin Cities.

Are these bad earmarks?

Those who don't like mass transit or dislike earmarks in general because they circumvent the budget oversight process might say yes.

But a look at projects in some other states might make them conclude that Minnesota's earmarks aren't so bad.

South Dakota, for example, received $1 million for a Daschle Center for Public Service at South Dakota State University, approved last November to house the papers of the former, long-tenured senator Tom Daschle. That's a project that only a South Dakota Democrat could love.

Earmarks are going out of style -- their value dropped by half from 2006 to 2007. That's probably all for the best. But one person's pork is still another person's key project.