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Earmarks For Champaign-Urbana, Too

During last week’s presidential debate, Republican Presidential Nominee John McCain managed to snare his Democratic counterpart into a long and testy exchange regarding the practice of congressional earmarks, in which McCain blasted their impact on federal budgets.

Regardless of whether you think the practice is enriching or bankrupting the country, Illinois’ 15th Congressional District is getting it’s cut.

Under increased scrutiny of the earmark process, Congress recently agreed to shine some light into the smoke-filled back rooms where power brokers wheel and deal away the taxpayers money. Members of congress are now required to disclose their earmarks. So where is Congressman Johnson sending your money?

Over the last year, congress doled out well over $14 billion to prop up the pet projects of its members. A look at databases obtained from the government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense and another from the Office of Budget and Management reveals that Johnson sent over $4 million to his district in 2008 appropriations bills. The amount of money Johnson is sending back home is fairly modest compared to others in the Illinois delegation. An analysis of the TCS database shows Congressman Phil Hare to be the biggest earmark seeker in the House raking in over $64 million. Senator Dick Durbin scored over $176 million.

Many of Johnson’s requests seem to be geared toward agricultural projects, improving infrastructure, and a couple of technology initiatives.

Among Johnson’s projects in an assortment of 2008 spending bills include:

  • $98,000 a new building at the Lawrenceville-Vincennes airport.
  • $192,000 for facilities and equipment at the Coles County Council on Aging in Mattoon.
  • $492,000 for research and development at the Eastern Illinois University power plant.
  • Another $143,000 to Eastern Illinois University’s nursing program.
  • $352,500 for “height modernization,” which is determining the exact height of Illinois landscape.
  • $49,000 to improve facilities at the Lovington Unit School District.
  • $490,000 for street extension in Champaign.

Defense spending bills are the earmark bonanza. In 2008 defense appropriations contained nearly $7.8 billion in earmarks, far more than any other area of spending.

Johnson hoped on this gravy train bringing Johnson, with the help of Senator Obama, delivered $2 million to the University of Illinois for nanomedical technologies research.

Nanotech is on the cusp of applied sciences and involves manipulating matter on the molecular and atomic levels. “I would call it ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Doctor,’” says Irfan Ahmad, the associate director of the Center for Nanoscience and Technology, of the research. Ahmad says that the technologies tiny sensors could be used to quickly diagnose injuries and illnesses, which could be crucial for soldiers on the battlefield.

Johnson’s press secretary, Phil Bloomer, says that this technology can be used to diagnose and treat diseases, in addition to detecting biohazards.

Bloomer says that although these are geared toward military applications they have a number of other uses.

However, a number of public interest groups and research centers want the breaks put on this technology citing a lack of knowledge on how it will affect human health and the environment.

Ahmad says that researchers are aware of this concern and are trying to develop technology that is safe and biodegradable.

Johnson also delivered another million for miniature cooling units for electronic devices to Urbana-based technology firm Creative Thermal. The technology will produce gadgets that will cool the uniforms of soldiers, according to Bloomer.

Nobody bothered answering the phones at Creative Thermal when this reporter called several times, or returning a request for comment.

Bloomer explains that Johnson’s office receives a number of earmark requests from constituents. A list of requests obtained from Johnson’s office totals over $292 billion and encompasses a wide range of projects.

However, Johnson isn’t saying yes to all of them. According to Bloomer Johnson only gives the nod to those that meet “legitimate public service need.”

In addition to the earmarks Johnson has already secured he’s pushing for an assortment of new ones, according to a database obtained from the Office of Management and Budget. Many are as agrarian as Johnson’s district and include cash to study agricultural marketing, livestock genome sequencing, soybean research, a Midwest climate center, research on arid lands and the development of alternative fuels. There’s no telling how much these projects might be funded since they’re still under consideration by Congress.

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