Monday, December 15, 2008

Coburn releases the Pork Hall of Shame

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-NE) just released his 2008 Worst Waste of the Year "awards" (PDF), a dubious set of trophies honoring the most egregious abuses of taxpayer funds.

Federal agencies dedicated scarce dollars to the search for outer space aliens ($9.4 million), a retractable shade canopy ($2.4 million), training classes for casino workers ($784,000), voice mail for the homeless ($15,000), and a non‐functioning gas station shaped like an airplane ($9,000).

This was the case despite the fact that by the end of the fiscal year the federal government spent nearly $3 trillion, but racked up a $455 billion budget deficit – the largest in the nation’s history.1 If the surpluses from Social Security and Medicare are not included, the true federal deficit was $639 billion.2 The current national debt stands at more than $10.6 trillion, which must be repaid with interest.

Mississippi River Flood Memorial Plaza – Illinois ($200,000)
Residents of Alton will not easily forget the great flood their town experienced in 1993 after the federal government builds the town a flood memorial plaza. The only problem is that the plaza will be built in the middle of a flood plain. A $200,000 grant by the Department of Transportation will help the plaza feature a “sandbagger statue‐fountain, flagpole, drinking fountain, interpretive panels, limestone benches and trashcans.”105 While the town hopes that visitors will learn to appreciate the struggle that comes from floods, “The site is a stone's throw from the Mississippi when the river is within its banks, and often under water when the river floods.”

National Drug Intelligence Center – Pennsylvania ($39 million)
In 1992, Congress created, the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown to collect information on drug activity around the nation. Since then, though, it has been labeled a “boondoggle” and, according to U.S. News and World Report, “been rocked by scandal, and been subjected to persistent criticisms that it should have never been created at all.”76 Attempts have been made in recent years by the Department of Justice to shut down the center because of concerns related to duplication, overlap and wasteful spending. None of this stopped Congress from awarding NDIC $39 million in 2008.77 One former NDIC director said, “I recognized that a lot of reports were [awful], poorly written, poorly researched, and, in some cases, wrong.” [Ed: John Murtha's Pig]

2010 Decennial Census Bailout – ($210 million)
Since 2004, the Census Bureau has embarked on an effort to bring the 2010 Census into the 21st Century, but wound up in the 18th Century. One of the significant challenges facing the Census is the collection of information from 300 million Americans entirely by paper and pencil. To do so, the Bureau awarded a $600 million contract to the Harris Corporation to develop handheld computers that would help census takers collect data electronically. The devices were problematic from the start, and although they rely on basic technology found in nearly all cell phones, the agency was never able to get them working properly. When asked in 2006 whether it would be appropriate to have a backup plan in case the handheld computers did not work, then‐director Louis Kincannon responded, “They will work. They have worked. You might as well ask me what happens if the Postal Service refuses to deliver the census form.”93 Despite enormous cost overruns, the devices will only contain half of the functionality originally intended. As a reward, Congress gave the Census Bureau a $210 million bonus in the form of an “emergency” bailout.94 $800 million later, the 2010 Census will still be collected, not electronically but by paper and pencil, just like the first census over 200 years ago.

Transportation Enhancement Grants ($800 Million)
In 2008, more than $800 million in taxpayer funds were spent on “transportation enhancement” (TE) projects, such as bike paths, pedestrian facilities, museums, scenic routes, historic preservation, and greenery for roadside beautification.196 To pay for these frivolous projects, taxpayer dollars are siphoned from federal highway transportation dollars needed for critical infrastructure initiatives, such as road and bridge repairs.

First Tee Golf Program – South Carolina ($3 million)
Kids around the nation will be invited to learn and appreciate the game of golf through a $3 million grant from the Pentagon to First Tee.79 First Tee is a non‐profit organization that was founded to bring underprivileged youth off the streets and onto the golf course. When one member of Congress responsible for arranging the grant was asked what childhood golf had to do with the military, he responded that golf “helps you make generals and colonels.”

Kanjorski Center Parking Garage ‐ Pennsylvania ($5.6 million)
That the Kanjorski Center, a 32,000 square foot office building in Pennsylvania, has stood completely empty since 2005 did not prevent Congress from trying to funnel $5.6 million in transportation money to add a large parking garage to it.

Cleveland Botanical Garden Green Corps – Ohio ($517,000)
Fifty‐five teenagers are learning to plant vegetables and do landscaping through the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s “Green Corps,” a work‐study program that teaches teens to make salsa.

Free‐Bike Library – Colorado ($66,000)
A $66,000 federal grant to promote clean air has been used in Fort Collins, Colorado, for a “bike library” that allows local residents to check out bicycles for free. According to the Coloradoan, “demand for bikes has been so great, however, that the library is often empty,” leading to “shoving matches between riders over the free‐to‐borrow bikes.”

Training Classes for Casino Workers – Kansas ($784,000)
Good casino workers are hard to find in the Kansas City area, according to the Departments of Labor and Education. Both federal departments teamed up this year and gave $784,000 in grants to the Kansas City Kansas Community College for a new training program geared to assist workers that may seek employment in a nearby planned casino.

Voicemail for the Homeless -- Ohio ($15K)
While the homeless in Summit County struggle to find food, shelter and clothing, this Ohio community made sure they were not lacking in one essential service: voice mail. A $1 million Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) will carve out $15,000 for the free voice mail service. Interestingly, the community spent only $10,000 of the same CDBG grant on transitional housing for “homeless single parents.”

St. Louis Zoo Bridge to Parking Lot – Missouri ($5 million)
The St. Louis Zoo will get a new pedestrian bridge linking its south gate to a parking lot across the street, compliments of a $5 million grant from the Department of Transportation.

Field Trips for School Teachers – Illinois ($918,600)
Field trips aren’t just for students anymore. Teachers from Illinois were given a grant of nearly $1 million by the Department of Education Teaching U.S. History program for vacations in the name of “continuing education.”

Inflatable Alligator and Under‐the‐Sea Waterslide – Texas ($367,000)
A preliminary report by the Texas Education Agency, released this past April, found that $367,000 in federal funds were misspent by the Cleburne school district. Audit officials became suspicious when, “The district did not provide lesson plans or other documentation to show how rental of an inflatable alligator and an under‐the‐sea water slide supported reading instruction.”

Tennis Courts and Artificial Baseball Field Turf – New York ($1 million)
In 2000, the Frank M. Charles Memorial Park received a federal grant of $1 million to upgrade its deteriorating facilities, but according to Dorothy McCloskey, president of the park’s oversight committee, “the money was wasted.” The problem, she insisted, was the park management’s “notorious inability” to perform routine maintenance, leaving the tennis courts and baseball fields in a state of disrepair. Taxpayers chipped in an additional $1 million grant this year to repair the tennis courts and to provide artificial turf for a baseball field.28 There is hope that this time will be different, “I’m not willing to see another million dollars wasted,” McCloskey said.

Portraits of Cabinet Officers ($167,290)
Even in the age of high‐resolution digital photography, numerous government officials prefer to have their likeness captured for posterity on the painter’s canvas. Nearly $170,000 was spent on just six portraits for the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the Commandant of the Coast Guard and even the director of the National Cancer Institute.

FCC‐Sponsored NASCAR Events to Promote Digital Television Transition ($350,000)
Fans of NASCAR will not be left wondering how to watch their favorite races on television come February 2009 if chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Kevin Martin, has his way. Martin spent $350,000 of taxpayer money to advertise the nationwide transition to digital television...

Senate Restaurants Post Huge Loss ($2 million)
Who says there is no such thing as a free lunch? Certainly not the taxpayers who helped to subsidize lunches and snacks for Senators and their staffs in 2008. According to Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the committee that oversees cafeterias, Senate restaurants will post losses as large as $2 million in 2008, following a loss of $1.34 million in 2007.

“The check’s in the mail” – IRS Mailings for Rebate Checks ($42 million)
When Congress passed legislation this year giving every taxpayer a stimulus check, the Department of the Treasury felt recipients needed a little advanced warning. It spent nearly $42 million on a mailing to inform taxpayers not that their checks had arrived, but merely that they would be there soon.

Remounting “World’s Largest Mounted Fish” – New York ($135,000)
Following an absence of nearly a decade, a 32‐foot whale shark made a long‐awaited comeback at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum ‐ mounted on a wall, that is... David B. Schwendeman, taxidermist, thought otherwise and rescued the shark with the help of a $135,000 federal grant from the Save America’s Treasures program, noting that “taxidermy [is] the ultimate in terms of conservation and wise use of our natural resources.”

Lobster Institute – Maine ($188,000)
Lobster lovers everywhere were happy to have gotten their claws on federal funding in 2008. Taxpayers, with the help of the Maine congressional delegation, shelled out nearly $200,000 to help the Lobster Institute conduct research on Maine lobsters.

Redecorating Train Station – New Jersey ($1.9 million)
Rutherford Train Station in New Jersey was remodeled this summer with the help of a $1.9 million grant from the federal government. Funds for the project were earmarked out of the Federal Highway Trust Fund, ordinarily set aside for important road and bridge projects, and paid for by federal gas taxes... NJ Transit Executive Director, Richard Sarles, noted that the repairs were crucial because usage of the station had increased to 940 customers a day – a number he called “significant.” Besides, he added, “We [also] had federal funds available to do it.”56

Search for Alaskan Ice Worms – New Jersey ($326,733)
The National Science Foundation awarded a grant of more than $325,000 to Daniel Shain, professor at Rutgers University, to trek to Alaska in search of the elusive ice worm. Unfortunately, he and several students spent two weeks this August hunting through snow and ice for ice worms, only to come back empty‐handed.

Small Business Loans to Liquor Stores ($82 million)
The economic downturn may have strained the credit markets, making it tough for businesses trying to get a loan, but the federal government has made sure low‐interest rate loans are flowing for liquor stores. In 2008, the Small Business Administration guaranteed loans for 331 liquor stores, putting taxpayers at risk for more than $82 million in the event the loans default. This was great news for Spanky’s Liquor World, Pistol Pete’s Beef N’ Beer, and Wagon Wine Shoppe, each of which received government loans.

Bike Path Along Baton Rouge Levees – Louisiana ($1 million)
Even as Louisiana continues to rebuild its levees following the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress has made sure one priority project stays on track: a bike path along the Mississippi River levee.

Feasibility Study for Medical School that Will Not Be Built – Mississippi ($478,492)
While there are no plans to ever build an osteopathic medical school at Jackson State University (JSU), Congress funneled nearly half of a million dollars to study the possibility, anyway.

Microchips in Cactuses – Arizona ($???)
Thieves looking to nab a saguaro cactus in Arizona may have another thing coming if Jim McGinnis has anything to do with it. He’s the top “cactus cop” in town and plans on using National Park Service funds to implant microchips in selected saguaro cactuses to help him track them down if stolen from federal property.

The Unwanted Sidewalk – Kentucky ($1 million)
Residents of Lexington are upset about a plan to put sidewalks in front of their houses using a $1 million federal grant, arguing that they are not needed. Some on the city council say the sidewalks are essential for safety. Julian Beard, representing the area in question, insists, “I don't see foot traffic or anybody trying to create foot traffic there for any purpose.”

Statewide Barn Census – Vermont ($150,000)
Barn enthusiasts of all ages participated in a statewide barn census this year, volunteering to “roam across the Vermont countryside counting barns and collecting information and stories about them.”

Specialty Potatoes for High‐End Restaurants – Idaho ($298,068)
“Demand has gone way up for specialty potatoes, especially in restaurants,” so says Robert Tominaga, President of Southwind Farms, when discussing the 2008 crop.100 That is good news for him, since his farm grows a large variety of specialty potatoes, such as Russian banana fingerlings, red thumbs and ruby crescents, that it sells to high‐end restaurants. Despite its success, USDA officials decided that the potato farm was in need of taxpayer assistance...

This maddening list is just a small sample of the egregious and endemic abuses that Congress has foisted upon the American taxpayer. Coburn therefore recommends using to hold government officials accountable.

If would-be politicians are looking for a template for successful campaigns, they could do a lot worse than to emulate Coburn's program to cut the ridiculous fat from the Federal Budget.

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