By JOE GAROFOLI
San Francisco Chronicle
December 21, 2009
Her $5 million-earmark request for the Presidio Heritage Center was approved by the Senate on Saturday as part of the $626 billion defense appropriations bill, the largest of the end-of-year government spending measures.
The bill, which includes $128 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama.
Pelosi's request was one of 1,720 earmarks worth $4.2 billion in the measure.
That comes on the heels of Congress passing a $447 billion spending bill Dec. 13 that included 5,224 earmarks totaling $3.9 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. The earmarks include $54 million for a flood-control project that will raise two trestles used by the Napa Valley Wine Train.
While the number and cost of earmarks in this year's defense appropriation decreased from last year, their inclusion comes after Obama promised to curb such hometown pet projects that circumvent the congressional approval process.
That didn't stop Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., from requesting $1.6 million for a translation and interpretation program at a Monterey graduate school. It didn't stop Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., from asking for $1.6 million to update the electronic records system at Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland.
And it didn't stop Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., and three other Bay Area members of Congress from soliciting $3.2 million for cleanup at the former Almaden Air Force Station.
Watchdog organizations say money for the Presidio project is a "curious" defense expenditure at best, and pork-barrel politics at its worst. The Presidio closed as a military entity in 1989 and was transferred to the National Park Service five years later. In March, Pelosi tucked $1.75 million for the center into a different spending bill.
"It is the epitome of what a pork-barrel project is," said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group. "If this were a project that was meritorious, then why didn't the Pentagon request it?"
After the defense-spending bill passed the House this week, Pelosi issued a statement praising the measure for making "critical investments in the success, health, well-being and training of our men and women in uniform."
Pelosi mentioned that the bill included a pay raise for military personnel and resources for everything from treating troops suffering from traumatic brain injury to money for "first-class equipment and armor."
But she didn't mention the money for the Presidio Heritage Center.
It is "curious" but not surprising why such a project would be in the defense appropriations bill, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It's because you wouldn't get a $5 million earmark in the Department of the Interior (appropriations) bill. It would stick out like a sore thumb."
Pelosi's office defended the Presidio expenditure.
"The Heritage Center at the Officers' Club will introduce visitors to a series of exhibits, digital media, classrooms and programs about the Presidio and its role in the development of the American West," said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.
The Presidio expenditure presents an unusual irony. After the Presidio was included in a round of military base closures, Pelosi helped craft a public-private agreement to keep its valuable real estate from being carved up by developers. The congressional requirement promised that the park would be free of federal subsidies by 2013.
The $5 million earmark will fund close to 25 percent of the center's estimated renovation and help leverage other donations from corporations and foundations, said Tia Lombardi, director of public affairs at the Presidio Trust.
In other words, the trust needs federal subsidies to lure private investment -- so it no longer has to rely on federal subsidies. The building, which dates to the early 1800s, is now used for exhibitions and events.
The proposed 20,000-square-foot center will highlight the historical significance of the Presidio, from its birth in 1776 under Spanish rule through its Mexican occupation, then as the vanguard of the U.S military's strategic command from 1846 through the 20th century.
"Our focus here," Lombardi said, "is to try to make this park work."
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