- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Nearly 20 North Carolina communities appealed to the federal government this year for help in upgrading their aging water and sewer systems, but only one made it onto a Senate panel's list of funding priorities.
Robbins, a town of 1,200 people and hometown of U.S. Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, is now in line to receive $500,000 for improvements to its water-treatment plant.
Edwards' office says the North Carolina Democrat did nothing more or less for his boyhood home than for any other locality that sought help. But questions of favoritism have been raised by some officials whose pleas were not answered this time.
"It's gaudy," said Morganton Mayor Mel Cohen, a Democrat whose city is eight times as large as Robbins and has also been seeking aid. "As mayor, I certainly wouldn't pave my street if there are other streets that may need to be paved first. It just doesn't look good."
The water and sewer projects were tacked onto one of 13 major spending bills moving through Congress this year. All told, more than 150 such projects at a cost of $140 million to taxpayers were "earmarked" by senators with no public debate.
Members of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee make decisions about which projects get added after getting input from colleagues.
Neither Mr. Edwards nor U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, sit on the committee. But this year, both pushed for more than a dozen projects.
Mr. Helms' office made overtures on behalf of 17 North Carolina communities none of which was included.
Mike Briggs, a spokesman for Mr. Edwards, said the senator wrote letters to the committee for every North Carolina town or city that made such a request.
"I'm sure the senator's involvement stopped with signing the letters," Mr. Briggs said.
However projects are selected, "this is not a process based on merit," said Daniel Williams of the Center Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that opposes lawmakers' practice of earmarking favored projects.
Committee members tend to steer a disproportionate number of projects to their own states and to those of colleagues up for re-election, Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Edwards has gained clout in the process, Mr. Williams said, because of his frequent mentions as a 2004 presidential contender.
Mr. Edwards' letters on behalf of Robbins sought nearly $1.2 million for a long list of upgrades.
"Taken together, the water infrastructure improvements will strengthen the town's ability to attract investment, promote economic development and provide high-quality services to its citizens," Mr. Edwards wrote.
If the committee's recommendation of $500,000 for Robbins is approved by the full Senate, the town will still need approval from the U.S. House, which is going through a similar process.

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