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Eye On Boise

Tue., Oct. 19, 2010, 5:18 p.m.

Labrador, Minnick clash over ‘letter-marking’

NPR today aired a national story based on an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity into so-called "letter-marking," or congressmen writing letters to agencies to request funding for specific projects, as opposed to earmarks, in which specific projects are funded in congressional bills. Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick was among those highlighted for opposing earmarks, but writing letters promoting projects from his state seeking stimulus funds, though he strenuously argued that the letters are nothing like earmarks. Instead, he said such letters merely show a congressman's support for consideration for projects from his state; the funds were given out in competitive grants.

Minnick's GOP opponent, Raul Labrador, brought up the NPR report at a Meridian Chamber of Commerce debate today, saying, "We come to find out that he has been looking for earmarks through a back-door approach, and I am completely against it. ... It was NPR and the Center for Public Integrity that called him out, it wasn't Raul Labrador." Minnick's campaign then responded this afternoon by listing bills Labrador voted for in the Idaho Legislature that spent stimulus funds. "Only one candidate in this race voted for stimulus money, and it was Raul Labrador," said Minnick campaign spokesman John Foster.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner; you can hear the NPR story here.

Labrador, Minnick clash over stimulus letters
By JESSIE L. BONNER, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican Raul Labrador and Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick are at odds over a series of letters sent by Minnick and other Idaho lawmakers seeking support of projects using federal stimulus money.

Labrador attacked Minnick earlier this week for campaigning against government spending when the congressman supported the use of stimulus funds to expand broadband Internet in rural Idaho.

In the race for Idaho's 1st Congressional District, both Labrador and Minnick have championed their efforts to rein in government spending. But Labrador took issue with Minnick campaign ads that tout the congressman's fiscally conservative credentials because of his past efforts to secure stimulus money for projects in Idaho.

"He's painting himself as someone that said 'no' to government spending, but here he is trying to benefit," Labrador campaign spokesman Phil Hardy said. "This is absolutely contrary to who he says he is to the people of Idaho."

All four members of Idaho's congressional delegation had voted against President Barack Obama's $787 billion plan to resuscitate the economy in February 2009, and all later sought stimulus money for Idaho projects.

Minnick campaign manager John Foster countered that Labrador is the "hypocrite," and voted for several bills in the Idaho Legislature last year that relied on federal stimulus funds.

The campaign highlighted Labrador's votes for legislation that relied on federal stimulus money to shore up state budgets for public schools, food stamp programs, state police and other services.

"Only one candidate in this race voted for stimulus money, and it was Raul Labrador," Foster said.

The spat over stimulus funds erupted after a National Public Radio report Monday that was based an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. The probe pinpointed Minnick among lawmakers who were critical of the stimulus bill, yet worked "behind the scenes" to get some of the money for their states.

The center, which is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, concluded that lawmakers worked to circumvent congressional earmarks, which weren't allowed in the stimulus bill, by writing directly to federal agencies with requests. The center labeled it "letter-marking."

Labrador blasted Minnick for "hidden attempts to secure pork spending."

"We never hid it," Foster said. "He said plainly, 'I oppose this, I don't think it's the right thing to do, but I have an obligation to inform and help my constituents.'"

Other lawmakers in Idaho's congressional delegation have defended their attempts to secure stimulus funding for Idaho projects, despite voting against the economic package last year.

"Once it's passed, my constituents are going to pay the taxes just like everybody else. And it would be silly for a state or a congressman to say, 'Well, we're going to pay the taxes to pay off that debt, but we're not going to take any of the benefits of it,'" U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson told the Idaho Statesman in February.

Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo also weighed in: "The bottom line is, I stated very clearly that this stimulus package was a bad idea. The mere fact that I thought it was a bad decision does not mean I should step aside and not try to make sure that it included as much as possible the right kind of stimulus dollars," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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