On the matter of federal spending, the ratio of bad news to good news seems to be 3 to 1. For every positive announcement, like Bush’s new budget holds growth in non-defense, non-homeland security discretionary spending to 1%, we also hear that Bush will increase spending on the National Endowment for the Arts, will increase spending on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and contend, as he did in his interview with Tim Russert, that he is not spending more than Bill Clinton.
Alas, I fear the ratio will only worsen. I was talking about this matter with a professor pal of mine the other day, someone who had meant so much to me during my undergraduate days. When I mentioned that Bush was threatening to veto the highway spending bill if Congress didn’t hold down the cost, he replied “Bush will not veto a bill from a GOP Congress.” After I went into an elaborate explanation as to why it was possible that Bush might do that, he repeated, “Bush will not veto a bill from a GOP Congress.” Sigh…the student gets into a flight of fancy, and the master knocks him back to reality.
Making the reality all the more grinding for those who favor limited government is the fact that not only has Congress lost all of its will to control spending, it seems to be on the verge of losing its sanity. Exhibit A is a project called “Iowa Child,” which received $50 million in federal taxpayer funds in the recently passed “Leave No Pork Behind” appropriation’s bill.
Iowa Child is a plan, headed by Des Moines developer Ted Townsend, to construct a 4.5 acre rainforest under an 18-story translucent dome, complete with an aquarium and a media theater, in the Iowa City-Coralville area (about 2 hours east of Des Moines and home to the University of Iowa). Many Iowa bloggers have been all over the problems with this boondoggle, not the least of which is forcing the U.S. taxpayer to fund the plaything of a millionaire developer.
First there are the projections of the impact that Iowa Child will have. Supposedly, it will create 500 temporary construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs with a ripple effect of 2,000 other jobs in the community, have an economic impact of $1 billion over a decade, and attract 1.3 to 1.5 million visitors a year. As blogger Cedar Pundit asks, “Who is smoking crack here?” Even if the rainforest was open 365 days a year, it would have to attract more than 3,500 visitors a day to reach the 1.3 million visitors per year. Cedar Pundit also notes that a lot of aquariums nationwide are now in financial trouble. One of the biggest reasons is that attendance projections were way off the mark.
Indeed, it could hardly be in a less ideal location if it were located underwater. The Iowa City-Coralville area has a population of barely 80,000, is an hour from the nearest metropolitan area (Quad Cities), near no major airports, and has no other tourist attractions such as theme parks, oceans, or forests. Compare that to the Henry Doorly Zoo, which has a smaller version of a rainforest (1.5 acres, 8 stories high), and also has many things Iowa Child will not, including a white tiger exhibit, an aviary, and desert biome. The Henry Doorly Zoo is located right across Iowa’s western border in Omaha, population 390,000. According to zoo officials, annual attendance is about — ready for this? — 1.3 million.
Then there are the costs of Iowa Child. Initial construction estimates are about $180 million. But as Iowa blogger Jeff Cordts at Tusk and Talon notes:
…the projected construction costs will go up tremendously before this thing is actually completed. In order to convince people it is worth it, government projects are always sold to the public on the absolute most optimistic cost projection. After all, once it’s started, we aren’t going to back out on it. We’ll have to push through to completion. Look for the actual construction costs to be double of what is being said right now. Second, this thing is going to take millions of dollars a year to operate. We’ll pay consultants millions to pick the right type of plants. We’ll pay experts tens of thousands a year to take care of the plants. It’ll cost about a bazillion dollars a year to keep a glass enclosure heated to steaming jungle temps during an Iowa winter. We’ll have to pay people to work there. There will be liability payouts to kids who trip and fall in the place. There will be sand and salt for the parking lot. There’ll be repair costs to the dome. There will be upkeep to the grounds. Those types of nickels and dimes, or more correctly, the Grants and Franklins, add up quickly.
Finally, there is the little matter of what the free market seems to think about this little project. Until the feds came in with their largesse, Townsend had only been able to raise about $40 million for the project since 1999 — including $10 million of his own money! Upon receiving the news that the American taxpayer was giving Iowa Child a “gift” of $50 million, the project’s director David Oman exclaimed, “This will be a national facility. There is nothing like it in our country.” As Jeff Cordts suggest, “Perhaps there is a reason for that, gentlemen. Perhaps that should clue you in.”
BUT WHAT IS MOST DEPRESSING is not that taxpayers are funding this boondoggle, or that they’ll probably be called on to bail it out if (and probably when) it fails. No, what is most disheartening is the name of the Iowa politician most responsible for getting this pork: Senator Chuck Grassley.
Yes, deficit hawk Chuck Grassley. Keep-an-eye-on-all-the-waste-in-the-defense-budget Chuck Grassley. Grassley defended his action, saying, “It will create jobs. It is being built on a [hazardous waste] site that would otherwise have to have a lot of taxpayer money for cleanup. Tourism is a major goal of state government, and this is a big tourism project.” I could go on about how the tourism-as-economic-development bug has infected the Iowa political scene, but that is another article for another day.
It is tempting to attribute Grassley’s lack of fiscal restraint to his being up for re-election this year. But thus far it looks like Grassley will run unopposed in the general election, and even if he did have a challenger he could lose 15% off of his recent margins of victory and still win. No, it is symptomatic of a spending addiction among members of Congress, encapsulated by Grassley’s expression of regret. “The only thing I feel bad about is not getting more money,” he said. “It is such a worthy project.”
If the otherwise fiscally sane Grassley has fallen prey to this disease, one only wonders the extent to which it has ravaged the rest of Congress. It suggests that Bush’s half-hearted attempts to control spending are all but doomed. Any serious effort to control government growth will have to wait until attitudes in Congress change, and that could be a very long time.