Georgia mayors angle for a piece of massive infrastructure plan

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, center, receives a tour of an underground tunnel at Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport during a visit in May. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@aj

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@aj

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, center, receives a tour of an underground tunnel at Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport during a visit in May. (Alyssa Pointer /

DALTON — When David Pennington ran for governor in 2014, he pitched himself as a staunch fiscal conservative eager to rip up the state’s budget. As mayor of Dalton, he’s still tight on spending. But he has a different approach to federal funding as a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan advances.

“We’ll take whatever we can get,” he said, “because everyone else is getting it.”

At the top of the mayor’s wish list is an overhaul to reduce stormwater runoff from I-75, which threatens to cause flooding on the west side of town just about every time severe weather rumbles through. But he’ll have to take extra steps to make it happen.

After a decade-long exile, congressional leaders this year brought back earmarks — the special budget items that allow federal lawmakers to single out projects for their districts. The revival comes with new guidelines designed to bring more transparency to a murky process that doled out plenty of pork.

But six of Georgia’s eight Republicans in the U.S. House declined to participate, citing the prodigious past outcry over corruption and wasteful spending linked to the earmarking process.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington says earmarks would have been the easiest way to get funding for his city's most pressing need, reducing stormwater runoff from I-75 that frequently threatens to flood the west side of town. But his member in Congress, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, opposes the use of earmarks and submitted no projects for funding through that process.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

icon to expand image

Credit: Greg Bluestein

That’s left local officials in their districts, which span all of far North Georgia and parts of the rest of the state, in search of other, more traditional ways to get their priorities funded.

“It’s really for us about having a good strong relationship with our delegation, and helping them understand the needs of my community,” said Tifton Mayor Julie Smith, who’s seeking funding to repave decaying roads and extend sidewalks.

“If it’s not through the earmark process, we’ll find other ways,” Smith said. “It’s all about communication.”

Big and small

The earmarks aren’t set to factor into the infrastructure package that’s heading toward a U.S. Senate vote. But the $138 million worth of projects submitted by Georgia’s delegation could wind up in separate multitrillion-dollar spending bills later this year.

Earmarks, of course, aren’t the only way lawmakers can funnel federal dollars to their districts. Vast sums for transportation projects are allocated through a separate process that funds repairs to freeways, bridges and other key infrastructure. There are myriad other methods lawmakers can use to finagle priorities into the law.

But earmarks offer a more streamlined way to ensure hometown improvements get financed and, perhaps, could help pave the way for the sort of horse trading that leads to more bipartisan agreement.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, second from left, gets a look at the railroad tracks that run through East Point during a tour by the city's mayor, Deana Holiday Ingraham, during a visit in May. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/

icon to expand image

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/

This year’s list includes projects as minor as sidewalk improvements, parks and trails, to more ambitious developments such as research facilities and theater renovations.

Even the smallest of allocations can have an outsized impact. Pelham, a town of roughly 4,000 in southwest Georgia, secured a $225,000 earmark for a public safety hub. Mayor James Eubanks said it will ensure that emergency responders are using the same system to communicate.

“We found a great need for streamlined communication after severe weather events, and this is trying to do something that will benefit everybody in the community,” said Eubanks, who praised U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, for including the spending.

But many other priorities in districts represented by the six Georgia lawmakers who reject earmarks were left off the funding list. That means the bulk of the projects are in metro Atlanta, along the coast and in southwest Georgia. Much of rural Georgia isn’t represented.

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, opposes the use of earmarks to fund local projects with federal money. He says they could be used as a tool for politicizing public funding. /C-SPAN

icon to expand image

The Republican critics say they have good reason to object to the process. U.S. Rep. Rick Allen of Evans called earmarks a symptom of “wasteful Washington spending.” His colleague, U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, predicted Democrats would use them as a tool to politicize public funding.

‘A different route’

Other Republicans, however, have embraced the idea. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, has said if used properly, earmarks for projects such as the expansion of the Port of Savannah are “anything but pork.” He’s responsible for the biggest-ticket item on the Georgia ledger this year: a nearly $30 million plan to reduce gridlock along busy DeRenne Avenue in Savannah.

Brian Brodrick, the mayor of Watkinsville in northeast Georgia, wants federal funding to expand broadband in Oconee County, improve pedestrian mobility and ease congestion from the convoys of trucks ferrying cargo to and from the state’s booming ports.

But since the area’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, opposes the earmark process, Brodrick is leaning on more traditional means for funding: building relationships with the state, nonprofits and other local governments to press their case.

“We’ve got to find other ways to get the money if we’re not on an earmark,” he said. “I’m supportive of the investment in the ports, of course, but we also have to find a way to deepen the investment in the corridors leading to the ports. Some of them just weren’t designed for heavy traffic.”

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz says that instead of using earmarks, which are opposed by his local congressmen, U.S. Reps. Andrew Clyde and Jody Hice, his city is seeking a different route for federal funding. It is seeking a grant from the Biden administration to give residents of a predominantly Black neighborhood better pedestrian access to a grocery store. Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

icon to expand image

Credit: Curtis Compton

The same goes for Athens-Clarke Mayor Kelly Girtz, who said local leaders have long searched for ways to give a predominantly Black neighborhood wedged near a highway better pedestrian access to a nearby grocery store. Instead of an earmark, he said, his community is seeking a federal grant from the Biden administration.

“We just have to take a different route,” he said. “If I get frustrated at things that don’t work exactly the way I want, I’d just stay frustrated all the time. So we have to adapt.”

If Pennington were in Congress, he’d probably have the same stance as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — his congresswoman — in opposing earmarks.

His challenge to then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2014 was built around the idea that Republicans were “masquerading as conservatives.” Every chance he got, he said the state’s budget was in dire need of a haircut.

But as a mayor, he knows it could have been much easier to get the funding to improve stormwater drainage through an earmark than seeking alternative ways to fund the improvements. The city is exploring grants, bonds and other financing methods.

“It’s expensive,” he said, “but we’ll find a way.”


Members of Congress can request federal dollars for specific projects, or earmarks, in their districts.

Then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner banned earmarks in 2011, citing instances of waste and abuse.

Democratic leaders have brought the process back this year but with new limitations and transparency requirements they say will improve public confidence.