$2.7 Million Disappears in Orphan Earmark for Atlanta

The year is 1991, it’s the George H. W. Bush administration. The place: Atlanta, Georgia. There is excitement in the city and across the country for the major event that will happen 5 years later – the 1996 Olympic Games.

The excitement is joined with the need for preparation. The city and the region has to prepare – food, safety, shelter, transportation, conveniences, utilities, and infrastructure all have to be ready for the influx of tourists, fans, and athletes that will be arriving.

The federal government, fully aware that how the world would see Atlanta was a reflection of how they also saw the nation, came to their assistance that year in many ways, one of which was an earmark for $58.1 million “for various transportation improvements in connection with the 1996 Olympics, including the city of Atlanta advanced traffic management system (IVHS).”1

The rules laid out in the bill for this money was simple:

  • State of Georgia was to use it for “innovative techniques in highway construction or finance.”
  • The money came from the Highway Trust Fund, and would be used from 1992 to 1997.
  • The money could only be applied to 80% of the project (so the state had some skin in the game).
  • The funds earmarked “shall remain available until expended.”

So what’s the problem? Why are we discussing a twenty year old earmark?

The answer is simple: Because of the language in this bill (can only be used from 1992 – 1997 but funds will remain available until expended), there is $2.7 million being held by the Secretary of Transportation that can only legally be spent… 13 years ago.

How is this possible? This is an example of what is called an ‘orphan earmark’ and nicknamed a ‘disappearmark.’ While it is great that money was not spent when not necessary here, regardless of what congress tried to force upon the recipients, this money still exists but is not included in any real meaningful budgetary numbers.

To make it worse, since this was allocated to the state for a highway project, this money is taken out of the state’s share of federal gas tax revenue!

So let’s get this straight:

  • Georgia doesn’t spend all of the taxpayers money on this project
  • The state is rewarded by losing $2.7 million  from their share of revenue
  • This money is still held by the Department of Transportation
  • No one can use it – so the money just remains with no where to go

There have been several noble attempts by legislators to ‘sunset’ earmarks – if they haven’t been used by a certain time, if recipients can no longer fulfill eligibility requirements, etc. But they continually get squashed.

And I can’t figure it out… but then again, it’s the federal government. They don’t want us to figure it out.

$2.7 Million in today’s dollars = $4.4 Million

*Based on appropriations affect on federal debt over the last 20 years

1. “Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991” HR 2950 ENR, Section 1107 – Innovative Projects. 102nd Congress.