Taxpayer waste in Tennessee this year is $480 million, according to the Beacon Center of Tennessee’s 2016 Tennessee Pork Report.
The figure marks a significant drop from this time last year, Lindsay Boyd, Beacon policy director, said in a news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday.
Beacon is a Nashville-based think tank promoting free-market policies.
A reduction in pork barrel spending doesn’t mean the problem of taxpayer waste is going away, Beacon President Justin Owen says.
“It does seem that at the state level it’s reducing. There are some measures the Legislature has put into place to stop funding nonprofits and museums and other things as much as they have in the past. Unfortunately, it’s growing at the local level, I think,” Owen said.
“There’s not a lot of accountability. There’s not a lot of transparency at the local level. The state Comptroller has done a phenomenal job trying to root that out, and a lot of people have gone to prison for stealing taxpayer money, but it continues year after year. Some officials are stealing money to go on vacations. Others are spending money on online gambling.”
Among some of the examples of waste at the local level, as pointed out in the 23-page report:
• At least eight booster clubs robbed local schools of more than $160,000.
• Metro Nashville police spent $18.5 million to study whether to relocate its headquarters. According to the report, the money wasn’t for the relocation itself “but a simple study of what relocation might mean.”
• Hamilton and Shelby County commissioners each doled out $100,000 to their favorite pet projects.
Owen said Beacon got Pork Report items by “scouring state and local budgets, tons of news reports and thousands of audits at all levels of government.”
Taxpayers at the state level paid for other items.
The report’s Pork of the Year Award, as decided through an online poll, went to the University of Tennessee’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion for urging faculty and students to use pronouns such as ze and zir in lieu of the traditional he and she.
“The office one-upped itself in the foolish department just months later, when it asked students not to play games like Dreidel or Secret Santa, or else it might offend someone,” Owen said.
“Fortunately, the Legislature properly reprimanded this office, which has since been shuttered, but not before it spent more than $400,000 last year in taxpayer money.”
The report also called out state officials for giving $100 million to pre-K programs, which, Owen said, “failed to improve student outcomes.”
The report cited seven items of waste as first reported by Tennessee Watchdog, among them the state’s four largest zoos and the Chattanooga-based Tennessee Aquarium. Each is getting $200,000 in state money to drive up tourism, despite record attendance the previous year.
“Politicians may think these handouts to zoos are a good use of taxpayer money, but I bet most taxpayers think it’s just a bunch of political monkey business,” Owen said.
Other items the report cited:
• The state giving out $120,000 so two Tennessee Department of Treasury employees could answer calls and questions about unclaimed property.
• The Tennessee Performing Arts Center getting a $300,000 grant for maintenance support, even though, according to the report, “the majority of Tennesseans will never even have the ability to see a show here, much less see the building where so much of their money goes.”
• The state using $456,923 for an ad campaign designed to discourage drunk driving and featured cartoon characters’ binge drinking, discussing promiscuity and sopping up vomit with a furry cat.
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