WASHINGTON -- Improvements to a river navigation system, repairs to an aging dam and construction that would affect some of the state's busiest roadways are among projects of interest to Arkansas' federal lawmakers, who are hoping to secure federal funding through appropriations efforts.
Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives submitted requests to their respective chamber's Appropriations Committee earlier this spring, hopeful the projects may receive financial support in next fiscal year's appropriations bills. Four Arkansas legislators -- Sen. John Boozman, R-Rogers, and Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs -- seek funding for projects with a few shared requests.
Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. French Hill, both Republicans from Little Rock, did not make any requests. Both have opposed the practice in previous congressional sessions.
Senators and House members can submit funding requests, commonly referred to as earmarks, in hopes that the final appropriations measures will allocate money for these projects.
Support for these projects will come from a limited pot. The Senate Appropriations Committee has stated funding for congressionally directed spending items will not exceed 1% of discretionary spending, while the House Appropriations Committee has capped the community project funding pool at one-half percent of discretionary spending.
"It doesn't increase the amount of funding; it just sets aside part of it that can have local input on how the money's spent," Westerman said of the House's total funding.
"You can go down one of two roads: you can appropriate the money and let somebody that knows nothing about Arkansas in some indescript cubicle over at the Department of Transportation make the decision on where the money is spent, or you can request that the money goes to certain projects in your district."
Both congressional chambers brought back earmarks in 2021, ending a moratorium instituted in January 2011. The previous ban stemmed from questions surrounding whether submissions benefited the public, even after both chambers codified disclosure provisions to make the process more transparent.
House Republicans opted to keep earmarks when they took control of the House in January, although members supported changes from the last Congress. Requests must be tied to a "federal nexus," meaning a lawmaker has to explain the connection between a project and a federal authorization law.
"We restricted the titles under which projects could qualify," Womack said. "That limits how many earmarks people can actually go after because some of the projects they might want aren't going to fit in those titles."
The timing of the requests coincides with the federal government approaching the debt ceiling, or the amount of money the United States can borrow while continuing to meet its obligations. As part of House Republicans' debt ceiling plan, Congress would cap discretionary spending levels in the next fiscal year at fiscal year 2022 levels with allowance for a 1% annual growth rate.
Crawford submitted nine requests, which combined surpass $187 million.
Most of Crawford's requested amount -- $165.4 million -- concerns the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas Navigation System, the 445-mile channel that runs from the confluence of the Mississippi and White rivers to the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa.
The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas Navigation System serves as a crucial economic network. Vessels moved $3.1 billion worth of commodities through the system last year.
"It's like a super highway for moving goods," said Crawford, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "A barge is equal to about 60 or more trucks depending on what's being carried, and one tow is comprised of 12 barges. A single tow is equivalent to about 720 trucks on the road."
Officials are concerned about the long-term reliability of the system, including the threat of the Arkansas and White rivers merging into one. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state agencies have continuously worked on improvements, Crawford stressed the importance of stabilizing the channel over an extended period.
A $91.4 million request concerns constructing a new containment structure at the Arkansas and White rivers. The project additionally includes a relief channel through this historic cutoff. Crews would demolish the existing Melinda Cutoff Structure near Owens Lake and reestablish a hydrologic connection between the lake's two sides.
The second request regarding the navigation system -- in which Crawford asked for $74 million -- concerns a backlog of projects.
Crawford's other requests address updates to the North Arkansas Regional Medical Center's electric medical records system; water projects in Mountain Home; a new fire station and public safety center in Jonesboro; preparation work at Jonesboro's Craighead Technology Park; ongoing demolition at the Arkansas Aeroplex in Blytheville; improvements to the U.S. 412 corridor; and construction of the future Interstate 57.
"That's what my job is as a representative: to not kick this down to Pennsylvania Avenue and let the White House determine who gets the money and where it goes," Crawford said. "We have some very pressing needs in the state of Arkansas. Not just in the First District, but broadly speaking."
Womack submitted seven project requests totaling around $29.7 million. In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he described earmarks as opportunities for the federal government to be "a partner in a project that means something to a local community."
"The community projects that we have shepherded over the last couple of years, I stand by every one of them," he said. "They were completely vetted, they stand on their own merit, and we'll do the same thing again this year, albeit under a much more limited fashion."
One of Womack's requests concerns the Black Bass Dam in Eureka Springs. In a letter to House Appropriations Committee leaders, Womack said the dam has "deteriorated radically" over the past decade. The congressman noted the structure's surface material has eroded to the point where its core is exposed.
"You ought to go see it. It's scary," he told the Democrat-Gazette. "It's a dam that is kind of dangerous, in my opinion."
Womack has requested $1.5 million to restore and replace the Black Bass Dam. Work will involve building stone retaining walls to divert excess water flow into an expanded spillway.
Another project affects the city of Gravette. Womack has requested more than $7.2 million to expand its sanitary sewer system. The project concerns the Interstate 49 interchange involving the Bella Vista bypass.
"They don't have sewer out there, and they don't really have the money to extend sewer," he said. "It's a difference maker. It will enhance economic development."
Other requests concern the relocation of Arkansas 10; improvements to reduce congestion on U.S. 412; addressing deteriorating infrastructure at the Lake Wedington Recreation Area; a study of water resource management at the White River Basin; and refurbishing the 13th Street bridge in Little Flock.
Womack is a senior House Appropriations Committee member. He leads its Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, which handles matters involving the Treasury Department, the judiciary system and multiple independent government agencies.
Westerman submitted the fewest projects, with his four requests valued at $26.9 million.
"Just because you request that amount doesn't mean you will get that amount," he said. "You put the request in, [and] the Appropriations Committee looks at it and decides what to do."
Westerman's requests include improvements to the U.S. 82 corridor; an extension of the Texarkana Regional Airport's primary runway; and efforts addressing bank stabilization and flood management along the Red River.
Westerman told the Democrat-Gazette he was wary of the community project funding requests when lawmakers reintroduced earmarks at the start of the 117th Congress. He opted not to make any requests in 2021. He came around to the process, noting the program has standards to prevent supporting a lawmaker's pet project.
"It's federal money and, again, there's a set amount of money that's going to be appropriated," he said. "If I don't request money for my district, it still gets appropriated and somebody else will determine where it gets spent."
Boozman recommended 48 projects worth a combined $424.8 million to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Rogers senator serves on the committee as the top Republican on the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.
Highlights of Boozman's submissions include $75 million for Interstate 49 construction near Fort Smith; $15 million for the Lyon College School of Oral Health and Dental Medicine for addressing the shortage of dental professionals; and two requests totaling $45 million for water supply sources in central Arkansas.
Some of Boozman's requests overlap with his House counterparts, such as Crawford's request regarding Mountain Home water projects and Womack's interest in studying the White River Basin.
"Stakeholders across Arkansas have shared their priorities with us and now we're making the case for their tax dollars to be invested back into the state through the committee process," Boozman told the Democrat-Gazette in a statement.
"Proactively identifying projects important to local communities and our state is the best way to ensure we're using resources in a responsible, effective manner instead of leaving the decision to Washington bureaucrats."