[Politics and money]

Which way to pork town?

As the nation mocks Oscar’s mob museum, we pause to ask: What makes earmarks bad, and will Obama’s stimulus package really be free of them?

Let’s ride this piggy all the way to Washington.
Photo: Ryan Olbrysh

Barack Obama has been very careful in his choice of words up to this point, but he might have let slip more than he wanted to when he told ABC News this pearl regarding his upcoming $825 billion economic stimulus package: “We don’t want this thing to be a Christmas tree loaded up with a whole bunch of pet projects that people have for their local communities.”

Obama was referring, of course, to earmarks, essentially extra money placed in legislation to fund anything and everything imaginable. Our new president made targeting and eliminating earmarks a key part of his campaign and made clear that his stimulus package would include none.

But that leaves a nagging question: When is an earmark not an earmark? Apparently, the answer seems to be when it’s in your own jurisdiction. Our mayor has been the whipping boy du jour for including his proposed Mob Museum in a “wish list” prepared by the United States Conference of Mayors. No doubt Oscar Goodman could give a good rat’s behind what legislators from Kentucky think about his plans to stimulate the local economy, but he can’t exactly be happy that one single project in the entire country is being singled out as pork, especially when it could be argued that every single proposal for this $825 billion could be perceived as such, given the history of such proposals.

After all, if the purpose of these funds is to stimulate the economy, who’s to say one job-producing project is frivolous and another is essential? That question will apparently be answered in February, when lawmakers hope to pass a bill determining how much of the package each federal agency will receive to distribute to state and local governments.


From the Archives
When pork meets barrel (11/11/04)
Beyond the Weekly
Got stimulus? We’ve got a project list (Las Vegas Sun, 1/17/09)
Mayor returns fire over mob museum funding (Las Vegas Sun, 1/12/09)
The Smith Center for Performing Arts

Whatever the answer is, this much is certain: Obama’s definition of “pet projects” had better be crystal clear, as this process is sure to receive as much scrutiny as pork barrel has received in the past few years.

“People complain about federal funding unless they’re the ones receiving it,” says Jon Summers, Sen. Harry Reid’s director of communication, noting that Reid himself has come under fire in the past for getting Nevada funds for project that were perceived as frivolous by other jurisdictions.

“Two years ago we got money to fight Mormon crickets in Nevada, and a D.C. group came out and criticized [Reid],” Summers says. “Well, to anyone outside Nevada it sounded like not the best way to use taxpayer dollars, but they were destroying crops.”

Summers adds that despite the negative attention Nevada is getting over the Mob Museum, Reid supports it, as well as many other job-producing proposals. Reid has gotten hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects and military bases over the last few years, “and he’s a supporter of congressionally directed funding. He believes he knows Nevada’s needs better than some bureaucrat sitting behind a desk.”

But for all the fire and brimstone over earmarks, consider this: Earmarks are still allowed. Legislators can still place projects they deem worthy of funding into bills. The only difference now is that, after the passage of S.1, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, any earmark must be accompanied by the legislator’s name (previously, they could be placed anonymously). So guess what, folks? There’s still a lot of extra money being proposed. It’s all on the record now, but if a legislator believes in what he wants money for, why wouldn’t he want his name next to it?

As to Obama’s plan to define projects with a “long-term benefit to the economy,” what’s the bigger benefit? A highway modification project that allows more traffic, or something that makes people want to use that highway in the first place?

Our own wish list

The U.S. Conference of Mayors wish list would create 15,221 local infrastructure projects and 1.2 million jobs in 641 cities. The plan has already been discussed with Obama. Here are the Las Vegas projects the Weekly would like to see funded:

1. Project Clear Skies ($30 million requested) Taking overhead power lines in Downtown Las Vegas and putting them underground. This would cover the area defined by Washington to the north, Bruce to the east, I-15 to the west and Charleston and Sahara to the south. Not just a project that would help to beautify the Downtown area, this would also create 150 jobs.

2. Smith Center for the Performing Arts ($375 million requested) This project would be a job-creation juggernaut, with 1,875 projected, as well as a touchstone of the city’s cultural landscape.

3. The Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement ($55 million requested) Forget the 275 jobs created. Forget the drawing power. We just want to prove to the rest of the country that this is not a pork-barrel project.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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