AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Friday, March 6, 2009 | 2 a.m.
WHAT McCAIN CRITICIZED
THE PROGRAM: UNLV’s Urban Sustainability Initiative promotes research on challenges facing Las Vegas and the southwest region — including Arizona and California — such as water supply and cleanliness, energy, health care and transportation.
HOW IRONIC: UNLV’s project is modeled in part on the nationally recognized Global Sustainability Institute based in the Arizona senator’s state.
Railing this week against “pork barrel corruption” in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill, Arizona Republican John McCain called the more than 8,500 earmarks in it an “outrageous insult to the American people.”
Among the dozen examples he ticked off while venting on the Senate floor was one that, of course, mentions Las Vegas — specifically, $951,000 for a “sustainable Las Vegas” project.
“What does that mean? What does sustainable Las Vegas mean?” the senator huffed, incredulous.
Maybe he was play acting because, really, McCain should know what it means. His own state is home to the Global Sustainability Institute which, granted, sounds much more ambitious.
The Las Vegas earmark called out by McCain is for UNLV’s Urban Sustainability Initiative, which promotes multidisciplinary research on water, energy, health care and transportation challenges facing the city and the region, including Arizona and California.
UNLV’s project is modeled in part on the nationally recognized Global Sustainability Institute at Arizona State University.
McCain is the latest to poke at Las Vegas in recent weeks, provoking the ire of the Nevada delegation, sensitive to the city’s status as favorite “whipping boy,” as Rep. Shelley Berkley put it.
It started with the mob museum being ridiculed as an example of wasteful spending when Congress was debating the stimulus package. President Barack Obama then remarked that companies receiving federal bailout money shouldn’t authorize corporate trips to Las Vegas or the Super Bowl. And most recently, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal claimed wrongly on national TV that there was an earmark in the stimulus bill for a maglev line from Las Vegas to Disneyland.
So let’s take a look at the earmark for UNLV that McCain found so offensive:
The Urban Sustainability Initiative started in 2007 with 11 professors who wanted to engage the campus on the issues of sustainability.
“The most widely used definition of sustainability is meeting the needs of today while still being able to meet the needs of future generations,” said Thomas Piechota, director of Sustainability & Multidisciplinary Research at UNLV.
The initiative is intended to foster collaboration among departments in researching the broader goals of sustainability — tackling climate change, for example — that require balancing environmental, economic and cultural considerations.
Take the electric car. It might be environmentally friendly, but is it cost-effective? And will anybody actually buy one? So chemists work with economists and sociologists in tackling the questions.
So, too, architects are working with engineers to create a model solar home they will monitor for energy savings.
Because the issues facing Nevada are similar to those confronting Arizona and Southern California, UNLV is partnering with the Global Sustainability Institute at ASU and hopes to develop relationships with other universities in the region to build a consortium for research and grant application.
The earmark process began when Piechota wrote a three-page proposal to the division of research and graduate studies, pitching how the project would contribute to UNLV’s educational mission. It ended up on UNLV’s list of priorities the school presented to the Nevada delegation in Washington, and Sen. Harry Reid and Berkley put in a request for the $951,000.
About $500,000 will be used as seed money for faculty research, to be dished out competitively; $400,000 will go to hiring graduate students for fellowships to assist the professors, and the rest will be used to pay for conferences, guest speakers and workshops, Piechota said.
Last year the project and a life sciences professor won a $450,000 federal grant to research water conservation, but this is the first time the sustainability initiative has received federal earmark money.
UNLV officials say they hope to rely on grants, not additional earmarks, to continue the work of the sustainability initiative.
Besides that one, McCain poked fun at a $143,000 earmark to Nevada Humanities to expand its online encyclopedia of the state’s history. Using the social networking tool Twitter, he said: “Anyone hear of Wikipedia?” referring to the not-always-reliable Web site.
The state’s online effort, created by an academic curator, offers students a rich database of information, including virtual tours of Nevada and three-dimensional presentations, according to Christina Barr, executive director of Nevada Humanities, the state affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities.
The organization sought the earmark, she said, because the nonprofit had been cut out of the state budget and private resources have dried up.
Barr and other executive directors from across the country — including Arizona — were on the Hill this week lobbying for federal support.