NORMAN — With earmarks officially making a return in the U.S House of Representatives after 10 years of non-existence, Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole and other representatives are being given an opportunity to propose spending that will go toward improving their districts and state.

Earmarks — or as the current House Appropriations Committee chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, called them, Community Project Funding — are a way for lawmakers to attach projects for their state and districts to spending bills written by the Appropriations Committee, which then directs money specifically to those projects.

House Republicans voted to bring back earmarks in mid-March launching a bipartisan support for local spending in the lower chamber.

“Members want Congress to help their communities, particularly now as the pandemic exposed so many inequalities and needs,” DeLauro said in a statement. “Community Project Funding will allow members to put their deep, first-hand understanding of the needs of their communities to work to help the people we represent.”

Congressman Cole, R-Norman, has been in favor and was an avid user of earmarks during their existence for his first eight years in office (2003-2011). In the past, Cole has secured funding and money for an I-35 exit to a Chickasaw Nation Casino, as well as funding for a radar for the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma’s campus.

After a decade without earmarks, Cole — a senior member of the Appropriations Committee — has submitted seven requests totalling about $82.4 million. The deadline to request funding was at the end of April.

“As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I believe there is a time and a place for congressionally-directed funding for projects to provide much-needed updates in communities,” Cole said in a statement. “When focused on core infrastructure and community service needs, this tool can vitally help members to ensure their constituencies are not overlooked.”

The largest of Cole’s requests would go to the Ardmore Development Authority. Cole is requesting $50,000,000 for this project.

He told the House Appropriations Committee that the money would be used to pay for “replacing the infrastructure” required to expand the Ardmore Airport, “so that it can accommodate more large aircraft for import and export of cargo.”

“The funding would be used for developing the necessary infrastructure to drive the creation of a global logistics park at the Ardmore Industrial Airpark,” Cole said in the official request. “Completed economic and feasibility studies indicate job creation in an economically distressed area and tribal region.

“The project will create an expanded international air cargo and rail freight-served industrial park in the direct pathway along I-35. The project will connect the economies of Oklahoma City to the DFW metroplex and the rest of the world.”

ANother of Cole’s requests would directly support Norman Regional Health System’s addition to its medical gas system and mechanical infrastructure. The amount requested for the project is $622,760.

“With this grant, NRHS can add additional medical gases to 64 adult critical care and 12 pediactric acute care rooms,” Cole said in the request. “In addition, NRHS would also add mechanical infrastructure and medical gas systems to its future ER treatment rooms and acute signal care intervention areas. These funds will ensure the hospital can serve the critically ill in times of a disaster.”

NRHS executives said this funding, if approved, will not only be timely, but will be essential to the health system’s needs, and would increase its capability to help Oklahomans.

“If this funding is granted to Norman by the federal government, it will ensure Norman Regional can serve critically ill patients in times of a disaster,” Richie Splitt, CEO of NRHS, said in a statement to The Transcript. “Unfortunately, Oklahomans often must face mass casualty situations such as tornadoes to pandemics like the coronavirus. This funding and project will provide doctors and nurses with the critical infrastructure they need to save lives.”

Cole’s other requests include $406,860 to the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation to study and address the disparities in the high prevalence of arthritis in Native Americans and the low access to specialized care; $1 million to Oklahoma Children’s Hospital to fund a behavioral health unit in the hospital; $7.9 million to the FISTA Trust Development Authority in Lawton’s Ft. Sill, which would be used to repurpose the FISTA Innovation Park and nearly $22.5 million to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation for two road projects on state highways in Garvin, Pontonoc and Grady counties.

“When evaluating community project funding requests, my top priority is ensuring the project is a good use of taxpayer funds, as well as if the requested project will benefit Oklahomans in the Fourth District,” he said.

Why they left

Earmarks were discontinued in 2011 after they were found to be heavily abused by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and their staff.

In 2008, a top aide to former Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Instook pled guilty to federal conspiracy charges for securing road projects for lobbyists who contributed to Instook’s campaign.

In order to prevent this kind of abuse, the House Appropriations Committee created a bipartisan list of reforms meant to safeguard the earmarking process.

In part, these reforms include: all requests must go online; members must certify to the committee that neither they nor their family has any financial interest in this earmark request; members may only request funding for state and local governmental grantees or for eligible nonprofits and the committee will only accept up to 10 community project requests from each member.

Reese Gorman covers COVID-19, local politics and elections for The Transcript; reach him at rgorman@normantranscript.com or @reeseg_3.

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Reese Gorman covers politics and the COVID-19 pandemic for The Norman Transcript. He started as an intern in May of 2020 and transitioned into his current position as a staff writer in August of 2020.