My man Lewis Black was in town this weekend sharing his political insights and frustrations in a way only he can. It seemed like the Murat Theater was filled with loyal followers of Mr. Black’s, judging by the crowd’s lack of surprise at his evenly distributed indignance at our current list of presidential candidates and congressional dysfunction. He likes to make fun of members of both parties, but at this show he threw out the disclaimer that presently, Republicans are just funnier than Democrats. I agree with him on that.
Before his show on Saturday night I was struggling to write my weekly column. The topic was related to taxpayer funded political slush accounts. I had written earlier this year how wrong I thought it was to protect budget surpluses because they represented political value more so than fiscal prudence. And in the last ten days, Governor Pence has been disappointingly predictable. In that time, he announced a $1 billion roads and highway infrastructure program, a $3.5 million expenditure on the Secured School Safety Grant Program, and another $3.5 million contract was granted to a pro-life nonprofit group charged with enhancing women’s health. Not a bad little shopping spree, right?
He was being attacked by Democrats for the condition of our roads, and, Voila!. We have what sounds like a huge roads program announced.
He and legislators cut the Secured School Safety Grant Program in our recently passed budget from $20 million to $7 million with very little fanfare. And then the shooting massacre happened at the Oregon community college. Magically, $3.5 million went back into that school safety program, even though the source of that money still has not apparently been disclosed.
In between these two gems, came the kicker. Following a $1 million pilot program that ended in October for Real Alternatives, a pro-life women’s health group, the Pence administration gave them a newer, more expensive, statewide deal. The group provides “life affirming” counseling services to expectant mothers. Their pilot program targeted northern Indiana only, and because of its success there, Indiana is now going to spend $3.5 million to take the program statewide.
Where’s the “magic” on this one? Well, it revolves around the elusive measure of “success” from the pilot which is touted but never defined. That would be hard to do after all, since Real Alternatives is a women’s health group that doesn’t provide any women’s health services. Don’t overlook the math problem here either. During the pilot, Indiana spent $1 million dollars on 8,452 young women clients, through 16,839 facility visits. That’s a little under $120 per client, and a little under $60 per visit. At these rates, what magical service gets delivered? There’s also a little hocus pocus around the fact that the announcement of the new contract came from a press office that was closed on the day it was announced, making no one available to explain. That’s real magic.
These are the kinds of things Governor’s can do when there is an unhealthy pile of taxpayer money laying around serving no real purpose. One would think his political opponents would be enraged by what appears to be a new trend of pork-like spending that will be impossible to fight. But I talked to two Democrat politicos about it and neither one them were upset at all. It’s the kind of thing that has been around since the birth of the republic, one of them said. And yes, I knew that as well as anyone. But Democrats aren’t even acting mad about it, and for good reason: these are the expected spoils that go to victors.
So now I’m really mad.
Both of these Democrats almost immediately referred to the now defunct Build Indiana Fund of yesterday. For those of you unfamiliar with it, there was a time when each legislator in the Indiana General Assembly was given between $100,000 and $300,000 to spend on capital projects in their districts with virtually no oversight or guidelines. It was wildly popular, and why wouldn’t it be? After all, little league baseball parks have parking lots that need paved. American Legion Posts have members who need new jackets. Some small towns need new wells drilled. Just like Pence’s recent spree, all of this spending makes sense to someone. But is this the best “process” we can come up with?
Former Sen. Larry Borst described the Build Indiana Fund program best when he said “There are no guidelines. One of these days, someone is going to get into trouble.” And when $450,000 was sent to a northwest Indiana church to build a women’s shelter that was never built, the program crumbled and was gone forever.
The Build Indana Fund came from Hoosier Lottery and new riverboat casino tax revenues. Funds that, in their infancy, seemed like “found money” to the State of Indiana. Fifteen years later, Hoosiers don’t see it that way.
This walk down memory lane might sound like those days were undisciplined, even dangerous fiscally managed times. I disagree. It’s not all that different than hoarding money into a surplus and then selectively spending it on problems that the hoarding created in the first place.
The difference between “rainy day” and “slush” funds is sometimes hard to identify. The former is prudent and clean, the latter purely political with a little dirt added.
So here I am, noticing things I have in common with one of my favorite, but famously unstable entertainers. Mr. Black is not a member of either of the two major American political parties. But unlike Lewis, I do really want to join one someday, but it’s things like this that keep me out.
My friends in both parties think these little pet projects are what makes compromise between the two possible. But I truly believe our government can work without earmarks, pork barrel spending, slush funds, and the like being an integral part of it.
Admittedly though, I just don’t have any evidence of it yet.