A new Web ad from the campaign for former Sen. George LeMieux takes on Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida over the issue of earmarks and specifically ties Nelson to perhaps the most infamous earmark ever, the so-called Bridge to Nowhere.
A narrator in the ad, called "The Choice," says, "Nelson voted for billions in wasteful spending earmarks like the Bridge to Nowhere. LeMieux never requested a single earmark and pushed to ban them all."
We're going to split this claim into two fact-checks. In this item, we are looking at the first half, about Nelson's record on earmarks. But we encourage you to also look at our companion fact-check on LeMieux's claim that he "never requested a single earmark and pushed to ban them all." (It's not as black-and-white as the ad suggests).
The claim that "Nelson voted for billions in wasteful spending earmarks like the Bridge to Nowhere," is backed up in the ad with a reference to Senate Roll Call Vote 264, Oct. 20, 2005.
That is the vote on a Highway Reauthorization Bill, which included $225 million for an Alaska bridge to connect the tiny city of Ketchikan to Gravina, an island with just a few dozen residents and an airport. The project was derisively nicknamed the Bridge to Nowhere by a government watchdog group and became a national symbol of federal pork-barrel spending.
Nelson voted in favor of the highway bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 93-1.
To be clear, this was not an up-or-down vote on the Bridge to Nowhere. The bill included $286.5 billion through 2009 for highway, mass transit, safety and research programs. The Alaska bridge was less than a tenth of 1 percent of total spending in the bill. We couldn't find any evidence prior to the vote that Nelson had an opinion about the Alaska bridge one way or the other.
In a press release that year, Nelson touted the fact that there was $8.6 billion in the bill for Florida road projects, including widening Interstate 75 from Fort Myers to Naples; constructing the Interstate 4 crosstown connector in the Tampa Bay area; improving I-4 alternate routes in Orlando; and widening the bypass around Tallahassee.
However, Nelson did have an opportunity to specifically eliminate funding for the Bridge to Nowhere when U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., proposed an amendment that would have redirected $125 million in funding for the Alaska bridge toward reconstruction of a New Orleans bridge damaged by Hurricane Katrina. That amendment failed 82-15, and Nelson was among those who voted against it. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., for a similar vote. Obama and others said they voted against the Coburn amendment not because they agreed with funding for the Bridge to Nowhere, but because they felt it was wrong to single out one state's pork project without eliminating them for all the states (or, they feared their pork projects might be on the chopping block the next time).
Incidentally, the Bridge to Nowhere never did get the money. A congressional committee directed the $225 million earmarked for the Gravina Island bridge to the Alaska Department of Transportation to spend the money as it saw fit. Although Alaska officials still could have decided to spend it on the bridge, ultimately the price tag for the project ballooned and the money was spent elsewhere.
But back to LeMieux's claim that Nelson voted for "billions in wasteful spending earmarks like the Bridge to Nowhere."
"He did," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks federal earmarks. "He supported bills, along with many other senators, that had billions of dollars of earmarks in them."
According to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the highway bill in question included more than 6,000 earmarks at a cost of more than $24 billion.
"Whether they were 'wasteful' or not all depends on who you talk to," Ellis said. "But along with the the rank and file, he (Nelson) has certainly been someone who actively participated in the earmarking game. I wouldn't put him in the pantheon of earmarkers, but he certainly played the game."
We've docked politicians before for stretching the truth by claiming their opponent supported the Bridge to Nowhere simply because they voted for that highway bill in 2005. But this ad paints with a broader brush, criticizing Nelson for voting for billions of dollars worth of earmarks such as the Bridge to Nowhere. Nelson may not have specifically supported the Bridge to Nowhere project, but there's no question he voted in favor of a bill that was known to include billions of dollars worth of road project earmarks, some of which Nelson had requested for Florida. We rate the claim Mostly True.