By Kevin Schmidt
When Governor Sonny Perdue signed Georgia’s $21.1 billion budget for fiscal 2009, it contained $6 million for Local Assistance Grants (LAG), funds appropriated and allocated to a specific recipient or local government for a specific purpose. Lawmakers try to use the fact that these handouts are a relatively small part of the state budget – about 0.03 percent the ’09 budget – to defend the spending.
The size notwithstanding, taxpayers need to question these appropriations. Does the specified program constitute a legitimate function of government? Is this program a local, rather than state, responsibility? Does it pose an undue burden on the local government’s budget?
The evidence shows that a vast majority of these special projects to which the funds are allocated pose no undue burden on the local government’s budget. Of the 224 cities allotted grants, only 16 of the grants were larger than 5 percent of their fiscal 2006 budget. None of the grants for county government projects would have cost more than 1.75 percent of their budget. If the projects are of such minimal cost to the local government and the projects are so important, why wouldn’t the local government pay for it?
This year, DeKalb County received a $5,000 grant for materials and supplies to help Park Pride-Druid Hills Civic Association construct a low activity neighborhood pocket park. One could reasonably assume it to be a legitimate function of government. The questions, however, are whether it should have been a local responsibility and whether it put an undue burden on DeKalb’s budget.
This project could have been paid in full, without assistance by the state, without even blinking. At $5,000, it was just 0.0008 percent of the county’s fiscal 2006 budget. The conclusion? The grant was not based on any financial need by DeKalb government. And it’s only one of many examples of money wasted on Local Assistance Grants.
Among some of the projects grant money went to: $15,000 for replacing water heaters and retrofit for water conservation for the QLS Apartments in Fulton County; $20,000 for renovating the Baxley Livestock Barn and Arena in Appling County, and $10,000 on new football uniforms for Pebblebrook High School in Cobb County.
These projects can be correctly called “pork.” The fact that these projects could be paid for easily at the local level shows how state lawmakers are using the grants as gifts to constituents.
Despite the wasted money, there are some Local Assistance Grants being used for legitimate functions of state government. For example, the City of Fargo is getting $10,000 to purchase a used fire truck. This would have been 10 percent of Fargo’s $97,163 budget. The City of Payne received $7,500 to help buy fire hydrants and leak detection and prevention equipment. The cost would have been 30 percent of Payne’s budget. These grants were allocated to important health and safety projects whose funding would have put an undue burden on the local governments.
The larger problem with Local Assistance Grants isn’t the cost (though it is a problem), but rather the corruption that goes along with them Want a LAG for your district? Keep the powers that be happy and vote for their bills. If you don’t you could lose your grants. Want to get someone to vote for your bills? Persuade them with the offer of some hefty grants. It happens time and again. At the federal level, the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003 was short of votes in the House, but it passed after those who wanted votes threatened to take away the pork of naysayers.
Georgia lawmakers insist the grants go through an evaluation process and the money goes to the places it’s needed. Given the grants’ diversity, it’s impossible to decipher any sort of evaluation process or find out how grants are being prioritized. Relatively rich counties could afford all the projects they are getting grants to pay for. A close look at the 470 Local Assistance Grants clarifies that most of the allocation is based on politics, not good public policy.
Pork spending has become so engrained in politics that a longtime senator suggested that taking away his highway money was like slapping his wife. As long as that remains the mindset of politicians, taxpayers will be left with money wasted and bad public policy.
Kevin Schmidt, a junior at Kennesaw State University studying political science, is a columnist for the KSU Sentinel, program director for KSU Owl Radio and an intern at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is 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 (June 20, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.