Charity Begins at Home

Tom DeLay's foster-home project in Richmond would be a philanthropic plus for any area. But critics say he is even more adept at charity of another sort: funneling federal funding back to his home base in Sugar Land.

For congresspeople, a ready flow of government projects and subsidies for constituents is hardly new or even a partisan method of staying in office. But DeLay's position as House majority leader makes him especially influential when it comes to putting federal money in the hands of locals.

The prosperous area 20 miles southwest of Houston has been good to DeLay, instrumental in electing him to Congress ten times. He's come a long way from his days as a struggling exterminator who couldn't even pay his taxes on time. His house is worth $402,000; when he moved in a decade ago, he promptly added a swimming pool.

DeLay has also been good to Sugar Land.

Sugar Land Mayor David G. Wallace joked at a ribbon-cutting last June that U.S. 59 should be renamed the DeLay Expressway. Indeed, the project being feted, a $130 million widening, had been bumped up one year to 2003 at DeLay's express request.

When something matters to DeLay, he has the clout to get it. That particularly goes for a man who feels right at home aboard corporate jets.

When the Sugar Land Regional Airport wanted a new taxiway in 1998, the federal government kicked in the money, says Phillip Savko, the airport's aviation director. When the airport put together plans for an $18 million development project, the feds supplied $1 million for its design. When the airport needed a radar system to handle traffic in its airspace, DeLay got it moved up on the waiting list, from 54th place to the top.

It's been one of just three airports in the Southwest region to get the system in five years, according to records from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Some airports still waiting for the system, such as the one in Everett, Washington, handle twice the volume of flights annually.

"We do hear from other airports, 'Why are you getting this money?' " Savko admits. "Again, they hear it's Congressman DeLay. But I tell them, it's having a good plan in place. You could talk about pork-barrel money -- there has been no pork barrel here. It's seed money, and that's seed money that's paid off."

The city of Sugar Land says the same about its newest engine for economic development, the Texas Energy Center. As Mayor Wallace explains, the center hopes to be to energy what Houston's Texas Medical Center is to health care: a hotbed of entrepreneurs and thinkers who feed off one another and develop real innovation.

The energy center has received significant support from the private sector. Companies such as CenterPoint Energy, ONDEO-Nalco and Champion Technologies have signed on as contributors. But the government has been its biggest proponent.

Last April, energy center organizers asked Governor Rick Perry for $6.1 million. But, as the Houston Business Journal first reported, the appropriations bill Perry signed two months later actually gave the center $31.1 million -- at a time when funding was being slashed across the board. (Perry did not return repeated calls for comment.)

Mayor Wallace credits several local politicians with helping to line up the funding, including DeLay and state Representative Charlie Howard, a Sugar Land Republican. "Tom and I are basically a tag team," Howard explains. "He tries to get money for the state. I try to get it to Fort Bend County."

DeLay was actively involved with the energy center plans. "He's active in anything that goes on in our county," Howard says.

Indeed, energy center backers believe they were close to getting a share of federal money that would dwarf the state's contribution. Currently, energy companies that drill for oil or gas on federal lands must pay royalties into the U.S. Treasury. But a provision of last year's $31 billion energy bill would have returned a portion of those proceeds -- $200 million annually -- to the companies instead.

The cash would allow American-owned gas and oil companies to explore ultra-deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The bill would put the dollars in the hands of a nonprofit consortium, which would then administer it to worthy companies.

The money looked like a perfect revenue stream for the center. After all, Houston is the hub for gulf drilling. Plus, the law required the consortium to be selected within 180 days of the bill's passage -- and, conveniently, the Texas Energy Center had formed just such a consortium in 2002, before potential competitors were even aware of the possibilities.

That's no coincidence. "The language in the bill is something we were pushing for, very hard," Wallace concedes. Last August, the center hired Republican lobbyist Barry Williamson to do some of that pushing in Washington.

The set-aside managed to fly under the radar of Public Citizen, a group that's spent months assailing the bill for its pork. Tyson Slocum, research director for the group's energy program, says, "To use that money -- especially in the era of half-trillion-dollar deficits -- for industry-favored activities like a research center…That's a gross violation of fiscal policy. That is taxpayer money."

The libertarian Cato Institute, which has hosted DeLay as its guest on several occasions, is equally unhappy. "You want projects to stand or fall on their own merits," says Jerry Taylor, Cato's director of natural resource studies. "Once you get something like this designated for a stream of money, it's very hard to ever get rid of."

Taylor adds, "Every single section in the bill is corporate welfare. The unfortunate reality is that the Republican Party is not about free markets. It's about corporate welfare for people connected to the Republican Party."

DeLay shepherded the bill through the House. But it ran into trouble in the Senate, where a few conservatives joined with Democrats for a filibuster. Republicans were unhappy about the gratuitous pork. Democrats, meanwhile, loathed the provision that would protect oil companies from lawsuits over the gasoline additive MTBE, a carcinogen turning up in municipal water supplies. They indicated they would approve the bill only if the provision were dropped.

It was DeLay who pushed for the MTBE provision. When he refused to drop it, the entire bill stalled.

But while they lost the potential cash stream, Sugar Land leaders don't seem too upset. Plans are proceeding nicely, Wallace says. Howard sounds less confident, but he doesn't criticize DeLay. After all, it's never a good idea to mess with your district's sugar daddy.

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