By Kelly McCutchen
Next year’s state budget includes $3.5 million to fund 46 local projects, sometimes referred to as “pork.” That’s less than 2 one-hundredths of 1 percent of the state’s total budget of more than $17 billion. As a taxpayer, should you care?
There are many arguments in favor of local projects, the most common being that the state has a duty to help local governments with worthy projects that a local government would find difficult to afford.
Although the final version of the budget was not available at the time of publication, the five largest projects proposed in this budget, ranging from $250,000 to $350,000, are in Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, Glynn and Columbia counties. When it comes to per capita income, these counties rank first, second, sixth, seventh and 17th in the state (out of 159), respectively, according to the 2000 census. They aren’t in the “needy” category by any stretch of the imagination.
Thirty of the remaining 41 projects are for $50,000 or less. It is difficult to believe that a project of this magnitude would cause undue financial stain on most local governments in our state. If local leaders or residents do not have the will or desire to tax themselves to pay for these projects, it’s a loud and clear signal that these projects may not be justifiable or worthy of being prioritized above other local needs.
The projects funded often involve items such as sewers, parks and recreation facilities, senior citizen centers and firehouse renovations. These responsibilities are all clearly local, not state.
Some would argue that removing pork projects from the budget is not worth the effort because the amount of money is so small relative to the overall budget. It is true that it’s not much relative to total state spending, but the problem gets bigger because local projects are often used as leverage for much larger spending projects.
Those legislators who “go along” with leadership are rewarded with projects to take home and those who do not are left out. There are countless anecdotal stories of political leaders threatening to pull funding and support for another legislator’s pet project if he or she failed to support a larger spending project or certain legislation. Recent media reports described how a Georgia state legislator was warned that his community’s local project might be in trouble unless he supported a specific piece of legislation.
Another area of abuse is new college and university campuses, satellite campuses and new buildings on existing campuses. Often, these facilities are requested and justified by their respective administrators or agencies; however, numerous facilities are built that are neither requested nor needed. The completed building or facility has its construction funded, but ongoing maintenance, staffing and operating costs can become a subsequent drain on the system, and an unnecessary use of taxpayer dollars.
To the credit of the new leadership in the General Assembly, the number and cost of local projects are declining from previous years, these projects are receiving more scrutiny and local communities have more often than not been asked to share the cost. State revenues, however, have also been depressed recently. That means next year may be a different story.
Before that can happen, legislators should return the responsibility for most local projects to local communities and adopt much more stringent criteria for funding future projects based on the impact of the project and the financial situation of the local community. After all, one man’s pork is another man’s important project – as long as someone else is paying the bill.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 1, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.