One Minnesota lawmaker wants $2.5 million in federal stimulus money for a suburban community arts center.
Another would settle for $15,000 to make windows airtight in a community center in his district.
On their colleagues' wish lists: Solar heat for public school swimming pools, a children's museum, a family center, an early childhood reading program and an industrial biomass fuel plant.
"There's a lot of those little bills floating around out there trying to get a chunk of the stimulus money, and deservedly so," said Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, who is pushing for energy-efficient windows in the small northwestern Minnesota town of Deer Creek.
"The little towns, they're broke and they need all the help they can get."
Such earmarks are the way that much federal money could be directed, or misdirected, to pet projects around the country despite admonitions by top officials.
Vice President Joe Biden last month warned local officials that they would be "watched very closely" in how they spend the money.
President Barack Obama has nixed spending stimulus money on stadiums, casinos, aquariums, zoos, golf courses or swimming pools, but there's still room for interpretation.
“There's a lot of those little bills floating around out there trying to get a chunk of the stimulus money, and deservedly so.”Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail
States have had little leeway to earmark before now because stimulus money has been targeted to specific programs.
But their ability to do so will grow in coming weeks, as states start receiving the most flexible part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- $48.6 billion to stabilize deficit-weakened budgets, most of it tabbed for education spending.
Of that, nearly $9 billion is coming to create jobs and improve the economy.
"It's natural for an individual member to look at the Recovery Act and the resources flowing into the state, and look at the immediate and compelling needs in their own district, and try to make a connection between the two," said Chris Whatley, who heads the Washington office of the Council of State Governments.
Whatley's group and others that track state legislatures say Minnesota is ahead of others in seeking to earmark stimulus money.
Some lawmakers didn't wait for details on the flexible part of stimulus money to start claiming it, writing bills that simply seek to tap "federal stimulus funds" or "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."
The earliest such bill, seeking an unspecified amount to relocate the Duluth Children's Museum, was introduced in January, even before the stimulus became law.
While lawmakers in other states haven't gone as far in staking their stimulus claims, they are looking for traction where they can find it.
A Georgia House resolution urges Congress to stimulate the state's chicken industry. A Texas House proposal adjusts state law to qualify utility projects in Brownsville for "shovel-ready" stimulus backing.
Kansas legislators put a provision in the budget to spend $6.5 million on a graduate medical education center in Wichita if stimulus funds become available.
In Minnesota, lawmakers traditionally try to get hometown projects funded through a construction projects package. This year, a $4.6 billion hole in the two-year state budget is keeping that package small, so some are turning to the stimulus.
Murdock's bill, co-sponsored with a Democratic senator, would take the money from the energy portion of the stimulus, an attractive pot for those seeking new roofs, insulation and other items for local buildings.
A proposal from Sen. Kathy Saltzman and Rep. Marsha Swails, two Democrats from the east metro suburb of Woodbury, goes after stimulus cash coming to the state Education Department.
The goal is to fund a $2.5 million fine arts center attached to the new East Ridge high school, which will open this fall. If that fails, Saltzman is also trying to get sales tax money set aside.
"When we drafted our bill, we asked about what would be the most appropriate way to bring it forward, and it was suggested to us that these bills were being written by other legislators for specific projects, and it would be appropriate to at least present our case," Saltzman said.
Sen. Sandy Rummel, DFL-White Bear Lake, is seeking $10 million from the stimulus -- $5 million for solar energy to heat public school buildings and their swimming pools, $3 million to establish a solar energy certification laboratory at the University of Minnesota and $2 million for Veeco, a maker of solar panels with operations in the Twin Cities.
"There are interest groups that come to us and they see the stimulus money out there, and they want to see if they can participate," said Rummel, who added that she's known as an advocate for the solar industry.
The process in most places, however, involves a statewide narrowing of priorities. Many legislatures are approving stimulus spending on roads without picking projects themselves, leaving that to transportation officials. A similar approach is expected for water and energy projects.
But the official overseeing Minnesota's stimulus spending, Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson, said he expects lawmakers to handpick some projects -- and he said that's not necessarily a bad thing.
State earmarks don't suffer from the same lack of transparency as national earmarks. Anything that passes will go through a public vetting, a process designed to balance parochial wishes with statewide needs.
"It's there and you have a record of it," Hanson said. "It doesn't just show up."
Still, it's too early to say whether the strategy will work. Legislative committees are still working on spending bills for stimulus money.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said he plans to stick with federal requirements that stimulus projects be chosen on the merits of job creation. He declined to comment on specific local proposals.
Whatley, of the Council of State Governments, said it's unlikely legislatures around the country will end up allocating much stimulus cash based on legislators' personal preferences.
"It's going to be a very small minority of states who are going to be able to do anything with that revenue beyond stem the bleeding in their budget," Whatley said.
Associated Press writer John Hanna contributed to this article from Topeka, Kan.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)