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Obama Transportation Sec’y Ray LaHood’s high-speed rail slush fund

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By Michelle Malkin  •  January 18, 2010 05:21 PM

Porkulus: It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And oh, oh, oh is Pork King Ray LaHood — the former Illinois GOP congressman and Chicago machine crony who now heads Obama’s Transportation Department — squealing with delight!

The Obama administration’s railroad czar on Friday praised a comprehensive Midwest plan for high-speed passenger rail service during a railroad conference in Chicago. But he refused to say whether Illinois was in line for big money. The state has applied for up to $3 billion in federal grants.

Joseph Szabo, a fifth generation railroader from Illinois who heads the Federal Railroad Administration, said an announcement will be made before the end of winter on awarding $8 billion in federal stimulus funds to the states to develop high-speed rail corridors. “Certainly no tipping of the hand, but it’s quite obvious that the Illinois application, as do many others, have some significant merits,” Szabo said.

Long-term plans call for trains traveling at up to 220 mph, which would slash the trip between Chicago and St. Louis to under two hours. Chicago would serve as the rail hub for an eight-state Midwest plan providing faster trip times to cities including St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Cincinatti.

I’ve blogged before about how these projects will be massive, taxpayer-funded slush funds and union boondoggles.

Harry Reid is eying a big chunk of the money for Nevada.

Randal O’Toole at Cato notes that LaHood has now eliminated cost-efficiency rules and blown open more fiscal black holes:

LaHood’s announcement means that cost is no longer an issue. If your project promotes “livability” (which almost by definition means anything that isn’t a new road) or “economic development” (meaning it will be accompanied by subsidies to transit-oriented developments), LaHood will consider funding it, no matter how much money it wastes.

Many transit agencies are elated. Cities from Boise to Minneapolis to Houston now see that their wacko projects that defy common sense now have a chance of getting funded.

The bad news for transit agencies is that this doesn’t mean there will be any more money for transit. Instead, there will be more competition for the same pot of money. Not to worry: House Democrats plan to open the floodgates to more transit spending as soon as they can get federal transportation funding reauthorized. This means taxpayers can expect to see more of their money wasted and commuters can expect congestion to get worse as more of their gas taxes are funneled into inane rail projects.

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Bonus excerpt from Chapter 4 of Culture of Corruption on LaHood’s big-spending appetite…

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: Earmark Man

There was much ado about President Obama’s “unprecedented” choice of Republican Congressman Ray LaHood to lead the Department of Transportation. (Er, never mind that GOP President George W. Bush tapped Democrat Norm Mineta in the previous administration.) Paeans to “reaching across the aisle” and “working together” resounded among the chattering classes. “Ray’s appointment reflects that bipartisan spirit—a spirit we need to reclaim in this country to make progress for the American people,” Obama said in cheerleading himself and his pick.

But donkeys and elephants have always come together in the spirit of expanding government, rolling logs, and barreling pork. Seven-term Congressman LaHood may have an “R” by his name, but it’s his political DNA that matters more than the partisan label. LaHood is a card-carrying member of the Chicago Political Machine. And as an Illinois congressman from 1995 to 2009, he reveled in his power as a House appropriator: He chose the assignment on the House Appropriations Committee, he told the Peoria Journal Star, because he and his fellow pork-slingers “know that it puts them in a position to know where the money is at, to know the people who are doling the money out and to be in the room when the money is being doled out.”

LaHood is an especially intimate crony of fellow Illinois king-maker and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Their public displays of affection abound. In a House floor speech last fall, Emanuel hailed his GOP colleague as “someone the framers of the Constitution would have ‘had in their mind’s eye’ when they ‘thought of a member of Congress…He is an individual who, while firm in his principles, was very flexible about his opinions.’”

“Flexibility” is easy when you have no fiscal conservative spine.

Emanuel and LaHood teamed up to push the massive expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 2007, funded through huge cigarette tax hikes and reaching far beyond the scope of the original plan towards the goal of universal health care. They co-hosted a series of bipartisan dinners for members of Congress to forge a consensus on spending your money. LaHood also crusaded for federal funding to pay for a $20 billion O’Hare International Airport expansion at the behest of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. And when the White House sought Republican support for the trillion-dollar stimulus bill, LaHood was the go-to guy.

Not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus, but former Republican Congressman LaHood got the last laugh. He now has $48 billion in stimulus money for the Department of Transportation to play with—including $8 billion for his pet transportation cause, high-speed rail. Next to Joe the Train Rider Biden, LaHood is the loudest Capitol Hill advocate for government-subsidized money loser Amtrak. “The subsidies need to continue,” LaHood protested in response to a 2005 Bush plan by Democrat Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta that called for reducing the feds’ role in Amtrak operations. “These subsidies are the lifeblood of Amtrak continuing the kind of service they have to the college towns and the small communities in Illinois and around the country. I don’t see us really tinkering with that.” The stimulus funds for transportation represent what’s been called the “largest wave of federal transportation spending since the Eisenhower administration launched the creation of the interstate highway system.”

LaHood is a klieg-light shining example of Obama’s anti-earmark disingenuousness. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the Transportation Secretary the “Earmark King.” But that title belongs solely to the man in the White House who pledged to “ban all earmarks” in the stimulus—and then promptly broke the pledge by rubber-stamping billions of dollars worth of earmarks. President Obama is the Earmark King. Transportation Secretary LaHood is the Earmark Courtier.

Taxpayers for Common Sense reported that in fiscal 2008, LaHood scored $62.7 million in federal earmarks for his district, either solo or with other colleagues. The Washington Post added that LaHood directed at least $9 million of that oft-hidden, last-minute pork project money to campaign donors. LaHood has a special fetish for road-building earmarks—doling out millions to home state paving companies and projects, including an unsolicited $245,000 check in December 2007 to fix roads leading to a Springfield, Illinois, cemetery where Abraham Lincoln is buried.

One of LaHood’s top back-scratching donors was Republican William Cellini Sr., an Illinois pal who shares the bipartisan Chicago spirit of pay-to-play. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass introduces you:

Obama selected outgoing Illinois U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Combine) for the post of secretary of transportation, putting LaHood in charge of Obama’s planned trillion-dollar public works bonanza being sold as a jobs bill. “Every dollar that we spend, we want it spent on projects that are there, not because of politics, but because they’re good for the American people,” Obama said. “If we’re building a road, it better not be a road to nowhere.” Not because of politics?

What does the great reformer take us for, a bunch of chumbolones? What Obama forgot to mention is that with LaHood in charge of the roads, they’ll lead to one place: Bill Cellini.

Cellini, the Republican boss of Springfield who has been indicted in the Blagojevich scandal for allegedly shaking down the producer of the movie “Million Dollar Baby,” is a strong LaHood ally. Cellini runs Sangamon County, and LaHood has enjoyed Cellini’s political support. They also joined to help oust the last true reformer in Illinois politics, former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, the Republican who was denied an endorsement from his own state party after he brought federal prosecutors to Illinois with no connection to the bipartisan Combine that runs things here. Republican money man Cellini is not only the Chicago political connection to machine Democrats and Mayor Richard Daley’s City Hall—and a Blagojevich fundraiser—he’s also the boss of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association. They’re the guys behind the guys who pour that hot sticky stuff on the roads, but don’t get their cashmere sweaters dirty and drive black Escalades to the job site, before wheeling off for some osso bucco at Volare or other fine restaurants.

Cellini was indicted in the fall of 2008 after a criminal investigation spearheaded by Northern District U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald. The charges? Shaking down government vendors to raise money for—wait for it—disgraced Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich. Asked to explain how a lifelong Republican had insinuated himself into Blago World, Cellini once quipped before his indictment: “When we’re in, we’re in. And when you’re in, we’re in.”

The autumn 2008 indictment cited 30 charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit extortion, attempted extortion, and soliciting. A new indictment released in March 2009 dropped the bribery solicitation, but the basic pay-to-play allegations should sound eerily familiar: A financial firm called Capri Capital wanted a piece of the state government pie—control and management of $200 million worth of state teachers’ pension money. The Chicago Political Machine named its price. Cellini and others, including convicted Obama/Blago real estate mogul Tony Rezko, “agreed to demand that Thomas Rosenberg, the owner of Capri Capital, arrange to raise or donate substantial funds to Friends of Blagojevich, and to threaten that if such funds were not forthcoming, they would block” a proposed investment by the state teachers’ pension fund of $220 million with Capri Capital, according to impeached former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s criminal indictment.

These are the friends of Obama’s Transportation Secretary, an earmark-addicted influence peddler born and raised on the politics of pay-to-play. For his “disregard for the taxpayers’ money and an abundance of concern over how he will administer the Department of Transportation,” the non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste designated LaHood its “Porker of the Month” in January 2009. “Change?” It’s all we’ll have left after Ray LaHood gets done plundering the stimulus coffers for his pet projects and pals.

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