Who's minding the oyster bar?

April 03, 2007

For a quickie lesson in what's wrong with congressional budget earmarks, consider the $4 million-a-year Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration program that benefited most everyone involved except the oysters.

As reported by The Sun's Rona Kobell and Greg Garland, a program launched by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski outside the normal regulatory process has operated for more than half a dozen years with no real federal oversight, functioning mostly as a make-work subsidy plan for watermen that failed to halt the decline of the oyster population.

Ms. Mikulski said in response to written questions that she had never intended a subsidy program and had expected strong oversight by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which awarded the annual grants. But federal bureaucrats generally keep hands off the pet projects of powerful senators, which is why such spending is so vulnerable to abuse.

Thus, the saga of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, an industry-based group that disbursed the federal funds, should be viewed as a cautionary tale for lawmakers bent on injecting well-meaning but unsupervised programs into the budget.

Tens of millions of hatchery-raised oysters intended to help clean and repopulate the bay were planted, and then harvested before they could do their job. Only a third have been placed in protected sanctuaries.

The Maryland Watermen's Association is paid $400,000 a year to remove diseased oysters from one part of the bay and dump them in another - a useless gesture that could be helpful if the diseased shellfish were destroyed, but watermen don't want to surrender the still edible catch.

Part of the federal grant goes directly to Larry Simns Sr., president of the Watermen's Association and a member of the partnership that runs the oyster program; Charles Frentz, executive director of the partnership, earned $151,000 a year until he retired recently.

Another $46,000 in federal oyster money covered the cost of the partnership's annual dinner plus hotel rooms at Cambridge's plush Hyatt Regency. Private funds went only for alcohol.

The state Department of Natural Resources estimates there are fewer oysters in the bay today than there were in 1994 when the recovery partnership was formed.

Bureaucrats are often described with contempt by lawmakers, but they play an important role in overseeing how taxpayers' money is spent. Cutting them out of the process simply invites shenanigans.

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