Sen. Lamar Alexander and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell were criticized Thursday for a provision — included in a bill ending the partial federal government shutdown — that will provide $2.9 billion in federal funding for a Kentucky project.
According to various media accounts, McConnell said the decision to include the provision was made by Alexander and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and he did not request it, though he supports the project – construction on the Olmsted Dam Lock on the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky.
Alexander said the move will actually save taxpayers money.
“According to the Army Corps of Engineers, $160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included,” Alexander said in a statement. “Sen. Feinstein and I, as chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, requested this provision.
“It has already been approved this year by the House and Senate,” he said.
Under federal funding procedures, the authorization for the Olmsted project would apparently have expired without some action now and about $80 million would have been spent shutting the project down, plus another $80 million to restart it if funding were resumed early next year.
State Rep. Joe Carr, who has announced as a candidate opposing Alexander in the 2014 Republican primary, labeled the provision a “Kentucky kickback” – echoing a phrase used in criticism leveled at McConnell by Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee that backs challengers to incumbent Republicans it deems lacking in conservative credentials.
“Sen. Alexander’s backroom deal is exactly what is wrong with Washington, D.C.,” said Carr in a news release. “While conservatives were fighting to reduce spending and stop ObamaCare, Senator Alexander was busy negotiating for an ‘earmark.’ This is a totally unacceptable.”
Jim Jeffries, a spokesman for Alexander, said the provision was “added solely to keep from wasting $160 million of taxpayer money,” but it conceivably could have an indirect impact on efforts to provide funding for repairs of the Chickamaga Lock on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga.
“Any money that can be saved by keeping Olmstead’s costs down will help keep all the other Corps projects on schedule. Under Senate-passed legislation being considered by the House, Olmstead would be funded separately and therefore more money for Olmstead wouldn’t affect other Inland Waterway projects at all,” Jeffries said in an email.
About $181 million has been spent on a new lock at Chickamauga and officials estimate completion would require another $673 million.
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Olmsted project is one of the largest construction projects in the country, considered essential but way over budget. The entire commercial navigation system of the Ohio River faces a choke point near Olmsted, where two locks and dams with century-old technology are cobbled together and at risk of failure.
Note: This updates and replaces original post.