(MyFoxBoston.com) – Hungry after a recession-forced diet, lawmakers are piling on the pork with a vengeance now, larding the latest transportation spending bill with 217 earmarks that would cost taxpayers $277 million if financed.
Legislators slipped earmarks for everything from $5,000 for three street signs in Fall River to $12 million to revitalize Haverhill's waterfront into the 2012 transportation bond bill, which was passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick in August.
Lawmakers wasted no time bragging about bringing home the bacon. On Marshfield-based 95.9 WATD-FM, state Senate President Therese Murray boasted about the benefits transportation bill would bring to the South Shore.
"There's a $1 million for road and traffic lights improvements on Route 53 in Pembroke and $5.1 million for reconstruction of Taylor avenue of in Plymouth," Murray said.
FOX Undercover asked state Sen. Brian A. Joyce, chair of the Senate Committee on Bonding, why lawmakers like earmarks so much.
"Part of our job is to ensure a fair amount of state tax dollars come back to our district," said Joyce, D-Milton.
"Looking at the list of projects, do you think there are some in there that are questionable?" asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.
"Well I suspect you've looked at the list and you're going to pull one or two out. What I suspect is there's one or two in there or maybe more that wouldn't be a priority of mine or yours," Joyce replied.
FOX Undercover first told you about one questionable project in the bill in an October investigation.
That's when we found an earmark for "not less than $500,000" for a traffic light outside Knollsbrook Condominiums in Stoughton, the condo complex that's also home to the town's state representative, Louis Kafka.
"Was that about helping yourself out?" Beaudet asked him.
"No," replied Kafka, D-Stoughton.
"How did it come about?" Beaudet asked.
"Just trying to figure out a way to stop traffic or slow down traffic on Central Street," Kafka replied.
"You live in that condo complex don't you?" Beaudet asked.
"I do," Kafka replied.
FOX Undercover found that town officials never even asked for the traffic light that was in the earmark. They had other priorities in mind, including improving another nearby intersection on Route 27, the spot where a three-year-old girl was struck and killed in September.
"So when the Legislature or Congress tries to direct money to a specific project, sometimes it's a good idea and sometimes it's not. And sometimes it's about personal gain and it's really hard for the public to judge that," said Pam Wilmot of Common Cause Massachusetts, which advocates for good government.
Wilmot said it's hard for the public to know which earmarks are worthy projects.
"You need to delve into it and stories like this help that come out but its very hard to make those calls," she said.
Making those calls is ultimately up to Richard Davey, the Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation.
"Don't you people here at Mass. DOT know better than lawmakers what projects should be done?" Beaudet asked him.
"Not necessarily," he replied.
Because earmarks in the transportation bond bill are only requests, not mandates, to spend money, Davey says very few get funded or even looked at seriously.
"I know you've got to be careful poking the Legislature. You've got to work with these people. It seems based on the numbers of projects put in there, there have got to be some questionable things" Beaudet asked.
"We don't study each and every one of these earmarks," Davey replied. "If we did due diligence on every single project, I am sure there are some that we would not see as a priority at all."
But that doesn't stop lawmakers from trying to pile on the pork.
"I don't mean to sound cynical senator, but is that about impressing voters in an election year?" Beaudet asked Sen. Joyce.
"Sure. Sure. There's a little bit of that absolutely," Joyce replied.
Joyce's district includes the little town of Avon which has just 4,300 residents but landed four earmarks in the bond bill. They include $500,000 for better traffic lights at an intersection and another $500,000 for road improvements to Avon Industrial Park.
"Do you think all of your earmarks are legitimate?" Beaudet asked Joyce.
"Certainly I think they all warrant further review or scrutiny from the administration to see if they can make the priority list, yes," Joyce replied.