2012 Resolution: No More ‘Pork’

January 2, 2012

For release Jan. 4 and thereafter (670 words)

A mile down the street from my home, construction is set to begin on a $15-million parking garage and retail center. Its purpose is to relieve congestion in a trendy Indianapolis bar district called Broad Ripple. Citizens are subsidizing the 350-space garage with $6.3 million in parking-meter revenues.

Despite taxpayer questions about using public dollars on a purely commercial endeavor, the city says the project is justified “to alleviate parking issues and allow for implementation of a residential parking-permit system on neighborhood streets.”

This is what the Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines as pork: Pet projects that favor a certain neighborhood or constituency, regardless of whether or not it’s a priority of the community-at-large. Put another way, pork is the stuff government does with our money that’s nice but not necessary. Like $320 million for that notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” approved by Congress to connect Ketchikan, Alaska (population 8,900), with an airport on the Island of Gravina (population 50).

The idea drew so much ire in 2005 that the money was eventually dropped, but the idea still crops up every time Congress debates a highway funding bill.

Pork occurs at every level of government from City Hall to Capitol Hill. While publicized examples like the Bridge to Nowhere get folks riled up, it’s the hidden pork – tucked away in spending bills passed by Congress – that demands attention if the country is to tackle our $15-trillion debt.

Last month, Sen. Tom A. Coburn, R-Okla., released his annual report, “2011 Wastebook,” listing his top 100 “unnecessary, duplicative or just plain stupid projects spread throughout the federal government and paid for with your tax dollars this year.”

Among them were three with Indiana connections: The University of Notre Dame received $764,000 to study the wireless and social networking habits of college freshmen. The State Department spent $350,000 on the U.S. entry in an international art exhibit in Venice, Italy, organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. And the U.S. Agency for International Development spent $1.35 million for entrepreneurship training in Barbados at a business school partnering with Indiana University‘s Kelley School of Business.

All these are nice but unnecessary ways to spend our money. Who could or should have stopped them?

Part of the difficulty in tackling pork is citizens ourselves who have come to expect politicians to bring money back to our communities. As the Oxford Dictionary of Politics notes, “Electoral prospects, especially for congressmen, often depend on how much ‘pork’ they can divert to their home districts, and members are reluctant to obstruct each other’s pet projects in case their own are defeated.”

Aaron Smith of Watchdog Indiana, a good-government advocacy group, says it’s time for citizens to accept that there’s just not enough money to spend on nice but unnecessary projects. Not when 40 cents of every dollar the federal government spends is borrowed.

Smith has launched an effort to create a Coburn-style Indiana Wastebook online and is asking citizens to send him examples of projects in their communities that appear to be a waste of tax money. He’s dubbing the initiative SLOW (Stop Local Option Waste).

Smith got the ball rolling by listing the Lebanon Gateway Project – use of federal surface transportation money to build “a low-priority, unnecessary, nice-to-have gateway into the community.” Smith says it makes no sense to spend $6 million in federal money on beautification when Lebanon needs better street pavement, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, street lighting and storm-water improvements.

And how about we all make a New Year’s resolution to stop supporting projects that are nice but not necessary?

“Stopping wasteful local discretionary spending will not by itself win the federal debt war,” Smith says. “However, by taking action to Stop Local Option Waste we will send a clear message to our elected federal public servants that they must put all possible solutions on the table now so a public consensus can be promptly reached on shared sacrifices to resolve our federal debt threat.”

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her an aneal@inpolicy.org.


Leave a Reply