Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican known on Capitol Hill as “Dr. No” for his proclivity to single-handedly hold up legislation, has singled out three federally funded Nevada projects as examples of the kind of fat that should have been hacked from the 2011 budget.
In the report “Wastebook 2011: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful and Low Priority Government Spending of 2011,” Coburn swings his fiscal watchdog hatchet at a Las Vegas Beltway beautification project, a Henderson “tree census” and an exhibit at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, home of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
"The Wastebook," compiled annually by Coburn and his staff, questions the need for dozens of federal programs that are labeled duplicative, unnecessary or “just plain stupid,” and cites 100 examples of what they call federal waste in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia, costing $6.9 billion.
The senator labels two beautification projects along the Las Vegas Beltway, one at Eastern Avenue and one at Flamingo Road, that cost taxpayers approximately $690,000 as prime examples of habitual waste of federal transportation dollars on aesthetic enhancements.
The projects, which included landscaping with native plants and boulders, were managed by Clark County and were paid for through the Federal Surface Transportation Enhancement Fund, which mandates that the money be used mostly for aesthetic improvements. Clark County provided matching funds, and the Nevada Department of Transportation distributed the money and vetted the applications from Nevada’s local agencies.
“It’s kind of ironic that the rules are set up by Congress, and here’s a senator criticizing what we have to abide by,” NDOT spokesman Scott Magruder said. “It’s a little frustrating that this senator comes after us when we can’t spend the money anywhere else anyway. If they want to change the rules, we would like to see the funding a little bit more flexible.”
A Clark County spokeswoman pointed out that the project produced temporary construction jobs and enhanced a public space while reducing graffiti and maintenance costs.
Coburn could not be reached for comment.
In Henderson, Coburn took issue with a $60,000 grant through the American Investment and Recovery Act to pay for a “tree survey and inventory.” The report concluded: “With Nevada's struggling economy, perhaps helping the unemployed in the state would be a better place to spend the stimulus money than a tree census.”
Kim Becker, communications and marketing director for Henderson Parks and Recreation, said the money is not for simply “counting trees.”
“A tree inventory is used to collect data on the health and diversity of the urban forest. This includes the condition, species, size, location, maintenance and site characteristics of each tree,” she said. “An inventory helps to prioritize maintenance in order to reduce safety and liability issues that result from hazardous trees, for example. An unmanaged urban forest can lead to costly infrastructure repairs, public safety hazards and perhaps unmitigated liabilities.”
Some of the money will help with training those conducting the survey, and a portion will go toward a tree canopy study.
Becker said the city expects its total park acreage to double in the next few years, and trees are a valuable asset that need to be protected.
“Beautification, reducing pollution, increasing carbon sequestration, stormwater runoff reduction, providing energy savings and citywide cooling — these are some of the benefits,” she said.
The senator’s final shot at Nevada targeted the Western Folklife Center in Elko and the $50,000 it received from the National Endowment for the Arts for an interactive multimedia exhibit about life and work in the rural ranching West, called “Ranchlines: Verses and Visions of the Rural West.”
“The $50,000 grant from the NEA represents less than 2.6 percent of the Western Folklife Center’s 2011 budget, and the amount of the grant has to be matched from nonfederal funds,” said Western Folklife Center Executive Director Charlie Seemann, who invited the senator to experience the center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. “The vast majority of funding for the work of the center comes from private foundations, businesses and individual donors.”
Coburn is a member of the Fiscal Watch Team, a group of seven U.S. senators whose stated goal is to combat “wasteful government spending.” Earlier this month he co-sponsored the Taxpayers Right to Know Act that would require every federal agency to provide an annual report card for each of its programs.
In the report’s introduction, Coburn acknowledges that some of the projects may be worthwhile and important to many people and admits that Congress is to blame for much of the frivolous spending.
“Some of the projects listed within this report may indeed serve useful purposes or have merit, and those associated with the projects may disagree that they are not national priorities,” the senator wrote. “This type of response is expected, and this report is intended to add to the ongoing larger debate about national spending priorities and the proper role of the federal government in the context of our $15 trillion national debt.”
Some of the report’s other examples of federal pork include $10 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a Pakistani version of "Sesame Street," $75,000 to help the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development promote Michigan-grown poinsettias and Christmas trees, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ award of $550,000 for a documentary film exploring the influence of rock ‘n’ roll music on the fall of the Soviet Union.