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Highway Money Fight Shifts to States

With a highway bill stalled and a ban on earmarks in Congress, some Washington, D.C., lobbyists are telling their clients to staff up for local battles over federal transportation funds.

The moratorium on lawmaker-directed spending items known as earmarks has dramatically changed what lobbyists can do for their clients on Capitol Hill and, in turn, placed a new responsibility on their counterparts outside the Beltway who are preparing to fight for projects that were once guaranteed in Washington.

“We’ve turned around to our clients and said, ‘Now, it’s time for state-level lobbyists to go to work,’” said Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist at Marlowe & Co., whose clients include San Clemente, Calif., Sarasota, Fla., and counties in six other states. “States are where the money is headed now, so that’s where they’ve got to put their resources.”

Marlowe has had to deliver this message to most of his clients — cities that were hoping the new highway bill would set money aside for their highways and bridges.

Highway bills are historically some of the most pork-packed pieces of legislation, and lobbyists are working furiously to find new strategies to get their clients a piece of what is almost certainly a shrinking budget.

The House last year passed a ban on earmarks, and in February, Senate appropriators agreed to a moratorium, though some Washington lobbyists are not convinced that the chamber will follow suit when it comes to the transportation bill. President Barack Obama has also said he will veto any bill containing earmarks that comes to his desk.

Earmarks have long been presidential pet peeves. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan vetoed the highway bill because it contained 152 earmarks, only to watch them proliferate in the years to come. The last transportation reauthorization bill passed, in 2005, contained 6,400 earmarks worth more than $24 billion, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense. The highway bill prior to that, passed in 1999, had just 1,850 earmarks worth $9.4 billion.

Without earmarks, lobbyists are focusing on promoting policy decisions that could lead to the funding of their clients’ projects and inserting language into grant programs that will give them priority. But, in the end, more checks are likely to be written at the state level.

“We’re going to see more money going though formulas and somebody’s got to allocate that money,” said Tim Lovain, a Democrat at Denny Miller Associates, referring to the formulas that determine how much money goes to each state.

The days of fashioning language that could apply to only one project have passed, he added.

“The scrutiny that this bill will be under will make it very difficult to get anything by,” said Lovain, who represents the Washington state Department of Transportation and the Phoenix metro system. “I think most people have sort of resigned themselves to the rules.”

In banning earmarks, House Republicans have handed over authority to the administration when it comes to doling out money for particular projects.

“The president has recommended new start projects and Congress is going to say nothing about these things,” said John Cline, a lobbyist at the C2 Group. “The DOT would have 100 percent control over the money. It gives an incredible amount of power to the administration.”

Two of Cline’s clients, the Los Angeles and Houston public transit systems, have historically relied on earmarks. Now, he and other lobbyists are devoting their time to agency officials instead of lawmakers.

Much of that planning, however, may be premature. House and Senate committees have said they expect to produce a draft of the reauthorization by June, but lobbyists, trade association officials and other sources familiar with committee activity said they don’t expect the bills to pass until after the 2012 elections.

Congress has passed short-term extensions of the highway bill seven times since it expired in 2009. Now, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) says he wants to pass a complete reauthorization with less money and no earmarks to sweeten the package.

Between the political pressure to make budget cuts wherever possible and Republican intolerance for increased taxes, coming up with a revenue stream for a more robust bill seems next to impossible.

“Every time the process of those bills has been lubricated by two things — growing the program and earmarks,” Lovain said. “Lawmakers used to be able to say, ‘Look, I got funding to straighten out Dead Man’s Curve.’”