WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to direct a $200,000 grant to the Las Vegas charter school established by Andre Agassi, over protests that it was a taxpayer handout to the millionaire former tennis star.
An amendment by Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., that would have scrapped the funding was defeated by voice vote. He argued that individual taxpayers, not Congress, should decide whether to support the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy.
The mixed doubles team of Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Jon Porter, R-Nev., defended the spending during a short debate.
They scolded Campbell for targeting Agassi, who retired from professional tennis last year and has continued his philanthropic work in Las Vegas, his hometown.
“The only reason we are talking about this project is that a famous name is attached to it,” Berkley said.
Agassi was not “a spoiled celebrity asking for a federal handout,” Berkley said, but a “model citizen” who has put substantial time and millions of dollars into the Las Vegas academy, which hosts students in a low-income section of the city.
Porter said he was “embarrassed” that another Republican was attacking the earmark when support for public-private charter schools “is a strong platform of the Republican party.”
Campbell said he had no problem with the Agassi school.
He said Perry Rogers, the president of Agassi’s charitable foundation, invited him to visit next month.
But Campbell said he challenged the earmark process, which would direct the Department of Education to provide the $200,000 by order of Congress, and not through customary review channels.
“I don’t think when taxpayers pay their taxes, that part of it is a repository for us as members of Congress to delve into the money and say ‘This is a charitable organization that I find worthy in my district, and here is taxpayers’ money for that,’ ” Campbell said.
“We are better off leaving the taxpayers with their own money so they can give it to whatever charitable organization,” Campbell said. “I don’t feel it is our right as members of Congress to hand this money out, no matter how worthy the cause is.”
The Las Vegas earmark would fund technology projects in math, science, reading and language at the Agassi school, Berkley said.
If the school had to go through customary federal channels, “we will always be behind the eight-ball,” she said.
“The money will help the school continue to carry out its mission to prepare students for college, and for life after college,” Rogers said in a statement after the vote.
Campbell and several other Republicans have crusaded this year against “pork barrel” earmarks in all spending bills. A labor, health and education bill that eventually was passed on Thursday contained 1,338 earmarks, including the one for the Las Vegas school, they said.
A dozen amendments to delete special projects from the bill were introduced and debated.
Unlike most of the other earmark challenges, Campbell did not demand that lawmakers take a recorded vote on the Las Vegas funding. A spokesman did not respond to a query as to why.
Porter said afterward he told Campbell that he and Berkley had enough votes lined up to defeat the amendment.