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Posted at 01:38 PM ET, 05/23/2012

What’s in a D.C. Council earmark?

Brown’s rule: If it doesn’t go to a nonprofit, it’s not an earmark. (Matt McClain - FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
“Earmark” has been a dirty word around the John A. Wilson Building for a few years now, dating back to 2009, when D.C. Council Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was revealed to have used budget earmarks to send city funds to nonprofit groups he had created and controlled. Two year later, we learned that earmarking played a role in former member Harry Thomas Jr.’s theft of city funds.

So Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) was somewhat perturbed when I used the E-word in my Saturday story with Jonathan O’Connell on how the council’s latest budget gets the gravy train flowing to Brown’s home Ward 7.

In the interest of clarity, Brown has a point: This year’s budget language doesn’t contain earmarks of the type abused by Barry and Thomas. Those widely used earmarks set aside city funds for certain nonprofit groups, including arts organizations and social service providers. Often the groups were named specifically, sometimes they were specified more generally; in any case, then-Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) put an end to the practice in 2009.

Brown’s designations aren’t for nonprofits; they’re for privately run economic development projects. One is to finance renovations for a sit-down restaurant to be located at the soon-to-be-renovated Penn Branch Shopping Center. The other specifies $800,000 for “a mixed use development located in Ward 7 including 100% affordable housing units supporting former Lincoln Heights residents.”

There’s only one project that meets that designation, Brown acknowledges: The Nannie Helen at 4800, a Deanwood project that broke ground in February and is well underway. Its developer said he considers the grant a “reimbursement” for personal funds he had invested to get the project moving.

Now are those earmarks? In the sense the term has been used on Capitol Hill, sure they are — using the legislative process to designate funds for purposes favored by a particular legislator. It’s just at city hall where the term “earmark” has evolved to mean a nonprofit giveaway rather than a for-profit giveaway.

Brown’s narrow definition has its critics inside the Wilson Building, who fear the designations are a step down a slippery, earmarky slope. That said, legislators aren’t about to give up what is perhaps their greatest power: directing how the city’s money is spent. And if that requires some semantic contortions, well, contort they shall.

But note that as far as the executive branch is concerned, the council’s power of the purse might not be absolute — at least as far as the Nannie Helen project goes. Jose Sousa, a spokesman for Gray’s economic development office, said Friday that it will “evaluate the language to determine whether additional subsidy is required for that project” before writing a check to the developer.

In other words: It’s only an earmark if we decide it’s an earmark.

By  |  01:38 PM ET, 05/23/2012

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