Sunday, November 23, 2003

Drowning in a Rainforest of Pork

You, me and every other taxpayer are drowning in a rainforest of pork. Right now, the senate is in the process of debating an energy bill that doesn’t even do what it should do – open up the Arctic National Wildlife Range to oil exploration in an attempt to help make us less dependent on foreign oil. What does it do? Provides funds to build a rainforest smack dab in the middle of Iowa – a place where the average temperature in the middle of winter is 20-some degrees. Iowa’s Republican senator, Charles Grassley, is pushing for taxpayer funding of this brainchild of an eccentric Iowa millionaire named Ted Townsend who can afford to be overtaxed and has nothing better to do than thinking up wacky projects that require taxpayer funding.

Here are some of the other projects that are included in the “energy” bill that we will eventually end up paying through the nose for (source: The Des Moines Register):

 Destiny USA, Syracuse, N.Y.: $2.2 billion entertainment and retail center near Onondaga Lake.
 Louisiana Riverwalk, Shreveport-Bossier City, La.: $180 million urban renewal project, including a marina, on a former industrial site along the Red River.
 Atlantic Station, Atlanta: $2 billion residential and commercial project on the 138-acre site of a former steel mill north of downtown Atlanta.
 BelMar, Lakewood, Colo.: $750 million mixed-use project designed to create a "downtown" for the Denver suburb. The project would include a hotel, 1,300 residential units and 1.8 million square feet of retail and office space.

What do these have to do with energy? Nothing. But they have everything to do with the kind of government pork barrel spending that will bankrupt all of us if we don’t protest loud and long. This is real money folks. And it’s coming right out of our hard-earned paychecks. We started at the top of the pork hierarchy here, but will back up now and start back at the bottom – the local level, because politicians are out of control at every level of government. Forty-four states are running budget deficits totaling $88 billion, thousands of city, county and municipal governments are running budget deficits totaling in the hundreds of millions and the out of control spending doesn’t stop. Imagine if you had five major credit cards, all maxed, a home mortgage for 125% of your home’s value, a second mortgage and three car loans and you went out and bought a $70,000 BMW thinking you were going to pay for it with your can redemption money and the money you found in the cushions of your couch. Sound ridiculous? It’s no more ridiculous than the reckless spending policies of government entities at all levels.

We’ll use the example of my metropolitan area – Des Moines, Iowa -- a typical Midwest metropolitan area with local governments run by socialists of all political parties, but mostly Democrats.

Starting at the bottom, we have the Des Moines School District. The school board just voted to accept donations (yes, this is on top of all the tax money they rake in at every level) to close a $550,000 budget deficit. The district is right in the middle of a building boom financed by an increase of a penny in the sales tax, which they brought up for a vote three times in rapid succession before it was finally passed. (The opponents were outspent $15,000 to $250,000 the last time). It was supposed to be a panacea – the answer to the district’s prayers – all they would ever need for the next ten years. But it was barely passed before the district’s superintendent, Eric Witherspoon (who I noticed, isn’t forgoing any of his $150,000+ compensation package to help close the district budget deficit) proclaimed that it wouldn’t be enough and they’d have to find more somewhere (translation, hold on to your wallet). Meanwhile, they’re in the middle of spending every dollar they can get their hands on rebuilding school buildings that were built not much longer ago than I was born (1961) and probably could have still been perfectly serviceable if they were properly maintained in the first place. Now they are talking about laying off some janitors and secretaries and everyone is panicked. But of course the Associate Superintendent for Nasal Discharge Disposal still gets to keep his $100,000 a year position.

Moving up a rung, we have the Des Moines City Council, trying to close a $1.5 million budget deficit by turning off every other street light and other such nonsense. Meanwhile, these bozos are planning on turning our comparative burg in the whole national scheme of things into a cosmopolitan city by re-inventing the downtown for the third time in twenty years. This third incarnation of the rebirth of the downtown includes a $60 million science center, a $30 million library (that at one stage of planning called for a living grass roof) and a $40 million entertainment and housing complex and tens of millions in incentives (read bribes) to keep big business from moving out of the city. Where is all of this money coming from. If you ask a city council person, they’ll give you some bullshit answer about different revenue sources and funds, but ultimately it comes from where government always gets their money – our paychecks.

Moving one more rung up the ladder, we’ve got the Polk County Board of Supervisors, a motley group of socialists who have managed to reduce their $5 million deficit down to a little over $1 million, by tactics that amount to finding change in the laundry. One of the major tactics was to fire the county manager, saving her $145,000 a year salary and a total operating budget for her office of $1.1 million, hardly chump change and a major cost saving move. Problem is, after they fired her, they couldn’t figure out what she did and couldn’t account for the time she spent on the job. Polk County government seems to not be running any worse than it did before they fired her. So what were we paying $1.1 million to operate her office for on top of the $75,000+ a year, plus office expenses for five county supervisors if she had no clearly defined job duties? Apparently none of the full-time supervisors care enough before they fired her to find out if she was actually doing anything. To top this all off, the fired county manager, who is a black female, threatened to sue for discrimination and the county ended up settling with her for a sum of more than her annual salary. You see, she had recently turned down an offer to go be the Fulton County, Georgia county manager (Atlanta metropolitan area) and the supervisors had increased her salary to stay in Iowa even though they obviously didn’t know what she was doing. Needless to say the lucrative offer in Georgia was gone by the time they fired her and she was more than a little pissed. But we’re not done with the sordid tales of fiscal irresponsibility in Polk County yet. We haven’t even scratched the surface.

Next we’ve got the Polk County Events Center fiasco. The supervisors weren’t satisfied with renovating the current auditorium – Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium – built in the early 50s and still perfectly serviceable. So serviceable in fact that they aren’t planning on tearing down or decommissioning the 16,000 seat auditorium. Just building a new one that seats a mere 3,000 people more people right next to it at a cost of $217 million (up from $206 million, up from $200 million, up from $170-some million, up from $160 million). Yes, instead of having one stadium that seats 15,000+ vacant 75% of the year, the Des Moines metro area will have two! Sit empty for 75% of the year you say, whatever do you mean. I mean that, against all logic and prevailing wisdom, Polk County is building a $217 million “events center” without a major tenant to lease it. Another part of the “events center” is a convention center sponsored by a major supermarket chain. But, again, we already have the Polk County Convention Complex built in 1985 at the height of one of those previously mentioned revitalizations of downtown Des Moines. The Polk County Supervisors recently voted to close it next year. Why? Because it’s losing money. The very next day, they were begging groups that had booked it for 2005 to re-book (at a substantially higher cost, no doubt) at the new convention center in the $217 million “events center” complex. Absurd? Of course, but it’s absurdity financed by us taxpayers – an unending supply of big dollars to waste as long as we keep putting up with it.

Finally, we have state government in Iowa. Our Democrat governor, Tom Vilsack, who flew out to California to help tax and spend Davis fight for his political life in the face of his $27 billion budget deficit, turned a billion-dollar surplus handed to him by the previous Republican governor (and brought about by, yes, a tax increase) into a deficit that is comparatively, on a per-capita basis, nearly as bad as California’s. Yet he can’t figure out why overtaxed and over-regulated business are leaving the state and new ones won’t move in. So he and the legislature created an $800 million slush fund give away to corporations that will re-locate to Iowa. Instead of changing the tax climate to make it more beneficial for businesses to operate profitably in the state, we’ll still tax them and regulate them to death, but we’ll give them millions to move to the state BEFORE we tax and regulate them to death. Makes sense if you’re a tax and spend politician but not if you’re a taxpaying businessman or citizen.

Again, all of these politicians will tell you the money for these ridiculous and wasteful schemes is coming from this fund or that fund or from this tax or from that tax or from this bond issue or that bond issue in an attempt to convince you that you’re not paying for it. But when it comes right down to it, government gets their money from one place and one place alone – out of our back pockets. And in a time when personal bankruptcies are at an all time high, households are saddled with an average of $8,400 in revolving debt and we celebrate a day in the middle of July as tax freedom day – the day the average Joe starts working for himself and not every government entity that gets a piece of his labor – we just can’t take all of this ridiculous waste anymore. It’s time for a major revolt. The current and future financial stability of millions of middle class taxpaying households depends on it.

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