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A Waste of Time

The Far Right’s Half-Baked “Pork Barrel” Scorecard

By Rob Schofield

Wasteful spending is (and always has been) a significant problem for just about every large human institution – public or private. Combinations of sloth, inefficiency, greed, and any number of a long list of human frailties almost always assure that even the best efforts and initiatives will feature their fair share of waste.

Examine any major accomplishment of American government or industry and you will be hard pressed to find one that didn’t feature a sizable measure of frittered time and money. From the Civil War to the Space Race, the national highway system to the Internet, waste, fraud and abuse have always been with us.

Think that waste is only a phenomenon of government? Then read some of the descriptions of the lavish spending practiced by America’s new “imperial CEO’s” or the vast sums that cycle through our bloated pharmaceutical industry. Or maybe just start reading the “Dilbert” comic strip [1].

None of which is to imply that we shouldn’t vigilantly ferret out, expose and fight waste in government. “Pork barrel” spending is a serious problem that undermines the effectiveness of (and our common faith in) public institutions. Moreover, it’s clear that pork ebbs and flows in public budgets – often with the degree of attention paid by the media and watchdog groups. North Carolina needs aggressive watchdogs in the battle to limit pork.

Missing the Mark

One thing that’s clearly not helpful in the fight against government waste, however, is when groups that purport to be engaged in serious policy analysis misidentify and mischaracterize legitimate public programs by recklessly tarring them with the “pork” label. For a prime example of this brand of harmful libel, check out last week’s “Legislative Recap” [2] from the J.W. Pope Civitas Institute.

According to the Pope Civitas crew, the most recent state budget includes $205.4 million in new pork barrel spending during the 2007-2009 biennium. Here is their definition of “pork”:

  • Spending on projects that benefit a specific area, typically the area of the representative requesting the funding.
  • Funding for items that do not fall under the proper scope of government services.
  • ‘Slush funds’ that consist of monies distributed to preferred groups to be spent at the group’s discretion.
  • Money forwarded to private nonprofit organizations that should be raising funds from the public, rather than receiving taxpayer subsidies. Not all money forwarded to nonprofits is identified as pork. Typically if the money is new, non-recurring spending given to a nonprofit that performs a service also performed by other nonprofits, it is labeled as pork.”

Here is a more succinct translation of the definition: “things we don’t like.”        

Not surprisingly, the results generated from these absurd categories are all over the map and almost impossible to assess. Many are just plain wrong.

According to the report, at least 117 budget line items should be categorized as “pork.” Explanations of the categorization, however, are only provided for eight. Fewer still are specific enough to allow the reader to discern which of the four Pope Civitas rules was supposedly violated. None is specific enough to provide a non-insider reader with any real idea of whether the attack is valid.

For example, here’s one of the longer critiques:

“More than $10 million in recurring funds requested by Representative Mickey Michaux (D-Durham) for nonprofit organizations in his district. Groups receiving tax dollars include the N.C. Minority Support Center and the N.C. Community Development Initiative.”

Most of the rest of the so-called “pork” is identified by nothing more than a few words, the amount of money and a notation as to whether the appropriation is recurring (R) or non-recurring (NR). Examples include:

“Opera Company of North Carolina – $25,000 NR”

“Women’s Health Services – $200,000 R”

“Water Quality Monitoring on Ferry Vessels – $300,000 NR”

“Shellfish Restoration Funds – $300,000 NR”

“Money to nonprofit for documentary on Jewish life in N.C. – $250,000 NR”

Reality Check

While there’s no way to respond in this space on behalf of all of the worthy initiatives slimed by the Pope Civitas report, there are a few for which a direct response is in order. First of all, the allegation quoted above regarding Rep. Michaux and funding for various nonprofits that specialize in minority economic development is just flat wrong on multiple levels.

The first is that none of the minority economic development groups to which Pope Civitas appears to be referring is a pork barrel organization. Each, in fact, has a proven record of doing solid work on a tight budget to promote economic development and preserve wealth in minority communities – often under difficult circumstances. Each could easily put even more public funds to good use.

It is also false to state that the appropriations to these groups are an example of one legislator directing money to benefit “his district.” First of all, each of the appropriations cited represents the hard work of many lawmakers and hardworking advocates over many years.

Second, even if Rep. Michaux played a role in helping to secure the appropriations (probably a safe assumption given his long career as an advocate and spokesperson for civil rights and minority empowerment and position as chair of the House Appropriations Committee), each of the groups works on a statewide basis – not just in Michaux’s hometown of Durham. Moreover, two of the five groups (the Community Development Initiative [3] and the Association of Community Development Corporations [4]) are located in Raleigh.

Of course, the appropriations to promote minority economic development are not the only worthy programs to be subjected to the sloppy and inaccurate attacks by Pope Civitas. As noted above, the alleged pork list includes dozens of other causes and organizations whose only crime is to run afoul of the cramped and bizarre worldview of the extreme, market fundamentalist right. Hence, the list’s ill-conceived inclusion of funds to:

  • promote adolescent pregnancy prevention,
  • reunite women prisoners with their children,
  • clean up swine and poultry waste,
  • promote arts and museums, and
  • promote science education.  

While the Pope Civitas list does appear to include some genuinely questionable appropriations that might well qualify as “pork” (especially in the area of corporate incentives), any credibility these attacks might have is mostly forfeited in light of their inclusion in a list that features so many obvious and egregious errors and the lack of any real explanations or analysis.

In short, what might have conceivably been a productive enterprise (i.e., a report that identified truly wasteful public spending – something that all groups and individuals of all stripes should support) is, in effect, thrown away in a slapdash, ideological diatribe.

What a waste.