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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Hurricane recovery could really wipe us out

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

Remember the $454 million “bridges to nowhere” in Alaska that became emblematic of the pork stuffed into the $286 billion highway bill? Well, it turns out those bridges have spanned at least one gulf, the one separating the editorial pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Both newspapers have published editorials suggesting congressmen do the noble thing and give back their individual bacon strips, thus making some $25 billion available for the Katrina relief effort. Otherwise, the burden of paying for reconstruction will fall on future taxpayers. The Journal noted officials in Bozeman, Mont., were willing to sacrifice $4 million earmarked for a parking garage there as a gesture of support for Katrina’s Gulf Coast victims.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to set that kind of community selflessness in too many other places. How could New York do without the $6 million ticketed for graffiti eradication? Or the Blue Ridge Music Center without $1.2 million for its interpretive center? No question these are critical to our nation’s transportation system. Or, closer to the path of Katrina’s destruction, what about a $2.4 million visitor center for Louisiana’s Red River National Wildlife Refuge? How important is that now?

At least the five Spokane-area projects targeted for $20 million will eventually involve real pavement.

The highway bill epitomizes the casual way Congress and the Bush Administration have cared for taxpayer dollars the last few years. Seemingly no expenditure has been too outrageous, no project too bogus to offend the nation’s legislators and chief executive. And now, just when the budget outlook has begun to brighten, comes Katrina and the tens of billions of dollars its victims will demand to rebuild their lives. New Orleans will be a shining city by the levee before the Treasury sees blue skies again.

Already, there are reasons for concern about the conduct and oversight of the rehabilitation work.

In the appropriate haste to get some projects started — haste so badly lacking overall — the federal government has so far let five no-bid contracts. Two have a certain odor about them.

A division of Fluor secured a housing contract worth a potential $100 million despite paying several million dollars to settle litigation stemming in part from accusations it overbilled for cleanup work in the aftermath of a 1989 hurricane.

And Shaw Group, with an even more lucrative contract in hand for housing and engineering services, is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Shareholders allege executives misrepresented the company’s financial condition.

The bungling Federal Emergency Management Agency was apparently unaware of some of these problems. Why are we not surprised?

Also in the thick of it is Kellogg Brown & Root Services Inc., the Halliburton Co. subsidiary accused of over-billing for services performed in Iraq. KBR is doing $16.6 million in emergency repairs to U.S. Navy and Marine facilities under a previously — but competitively — awarded $500 million contract. Vice President Dick Cheney continues to receive some income from Halliburton.

Meanwhile, the president had no problem suspending prevailing wage laws that help boost worker incomes. Why, when every extra dollar in the pocket of family wage-earners has got to be good for Gulf Coast economies? And especially when contractors like giant Bechtel Corp. “will be given every benefit of the doubt,” according to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.

Democrats have introduced a bill that would reverse the president’s decision on wages. It should pass, but probably won’t.

Congress does merit points for including in the relief packages already passed $15 million to pay Department of Homeland Security investigators who will monitor spending. The president might want to consider putting Stuart Bowen in charge of that effort. He apparently put a stop to much of the irresponsible spending that plagued early reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

With the money to be spent in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast likely to exceed what has been poured into the U.S. war effort, the doors are wide to another spasm of congressional hog butchering. And there’s already posturing about targeted tax cuts or exemptions that could help stimulate the economy in areas devastated by Katrina. Targeted? Once Congress starts aiming, everybody gets hit. And nobody pays.

Too pessimistic? Well, House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay says Congress has already trimmed all the fat from the federal budget.

Draw your own conclusion.

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