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Pork-barrel spending fills state budget

Pork-barrel spending fills state budget

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AUSTIN - An antebellum plantation home in South Dallas. A museum of South Texas history. Upgrades to a city park named for an influential member of the Texas Legislature.

In this year's legislative session, it paid to support embattled House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Recent budget prosperity and a presiding officer in desperate need of allies ushered in a return of pork-barrel spending, the practice of bestowing millions of state dollars to local projects, usually as a favor to certain lawmakers.

In the budget for 2008 and 2009, those who helped Craddick survive a bipartisan coup attempt were the main beneficiaries of an estimated $176 million in so-called special items.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat who supported Craddick, got a $600,000 matching grant for renovations at the Sylvester Turner Park.

"Most of the decisions on special items were in an attempt to garner support for the speaker," said Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine, not among those on Craddick's team of supporters. "That money was handed out in an effort to buy support."

Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said such allegations aren't true and that the "budget process that took place this last session is the same as it's always been."

Critics say the budgeting process can be too politicized.

"In general, those that have the power take the most. It's not fairly distributed," said Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste.

Turner defended needed renovations at the 27-year-old park, including new bathroom facilities to replace portable toilets.

"It's in a low-income area," Turner said. "Certainly the people in my district, especially people who cannot afford to go to Minute Maid downtown or the Texans' stadium ... ought to have an opportunity to go to a neighborhood park."

Paige argued that underprivileged residents in Turner's district shouldn't get priority over those in other parts of the state.

"What about Dallas? What about Austin? Are there no inner-city deprived folks there? What about rural environments?" she said. "The question becomes, why does your project get funded and not another one."

Rep. Helen Giddings, another Democrat who supported Craddick, helped put the city of DeSoto on a list for half a million dollars to buy back the historic Nance Farm, a plantation home built in the 1850s. The plantation and Turner's park are among 18 local parks in Texas that were given priority for $16.7 million in matching state grants.

The spending plan also includes more than $123 million in special funding for various colleges and universities, which still are subject to line-item veto by the governor.

During the final budget adoption debate, one lawmaker said the so-called special items in higher education - such as $5 million for student programs at Texas A&M International in Laredo - were "frantically doled out, late at night" during the final weeks of the session, when a group of lawmakers were plotting a furtive attempt to overthrow Craddick. At the time, Craddick was trying to hold on to the 76-vote majority that he needed to overcome such a maneuver.

In his district, Gallego said Sul Ross State University will come out even, despite an overall increase in higher education spending in the rest of the state.

"I find it interesting that people may criticize special items that may fall in one person's district but certainly don't criticize items that fall within their own that benefit people in their communities," said Turner, noting that special items were "all over the budget."

Lawmakers started the 140-day session with a $14 billion surplus and had allocated all but $4 billion, which would be saved for future property tax relief. By the time the special items and other last-minute spending had been added in the final weeks of the session, the set-aside amount had dwindled to $2.5 billion.

Border area Democrats, a key bloc of support for Craddick's re-election, did particularly well in the $153 billion state budget.

Democratic Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, for example, helped carve out an $800,000 matching grant for a new park in the rural border town and a new rural technology center for vocational skills training. Guillen, who has become a Craddick ally, was selected by the speaker to serve as vice chairman of the powerful House budget-writing committee.

A zoo in Brownsville and a soccer complex in Kingsville will get almost $700,000 combined for renovations. Another $10 million was set aside for the South Texas Hospital in Harlingen and a million for a border security technology and training center in McAllen.

Democratic Rep. Aaron Pena of Edinburg helped bring the city $3 million for a new drug treatment center, $750,000 for the Will Looney Legacy Park and a museum of South Texas history.

Craddick's home region benefited, as well. Midland's Beal Park is listed for a $1 million matching grant for construction at the 100-acre city park with 16 sports fields, a skate park and amphitheater.

At the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, officials can spend up to $7.5 million for "facility enhancement," rumored to be slated for a parking garage at a new performing arts center.

While special items funding in this budget is more than has been afforded since the state was hit with a $10 billion budget shortfall in 2003, it's not new. The 1999 budget included about $334 million in similar items, one lawmaker said.

"There's always things in the budget that are given priorities because leadership takes an interest," said longtime state number cruncher Billy Hamilton, who most recently served as deputy comptroller. "It's part of the process."

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