Utahns Win in 2002 Olympic Pork Barrel Competition

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Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett is a regular Picabo Street in the Senate?s cash collecting race.

In the last three years, Bennett has amassed two high profile (or at least highly embarrassing) awards: the “Money Does Grow on Trees Award” and the “Porker of the Month Award.”

Nominated by the public for both, Bennett earned the accolades from the government watch-dog- group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).

CAGW bestowed upon Bennett the first decoration for slipping $500,000 out the Senate?s back door for the “Olympic Tree Program.” Bennett earned the second for his relentless 2002 Olympic Winter Games financial crusade?specifically, by garnering $3.3 million in federal funds to perform drug tests on athletes.

“Taxpayers,” the CAGW spokesman said, “are footing the bill for 75 percent of the Olympic drug-testing budget.”

What are they complaining about? Millions of Americans don?t want to watch hopped-up athletes attempting triple sow cows under illegal medicinal influence. Additionally, there?s nothing wrong with making Utah pretty with a few strategically placed trees for NBC?s cameras. After all, we?re in this together, selling the American image to the world.

If Americans don?t feel they?re receiving enough tax bang for their buck, perhaps in 10 or 20 years, they will come visit their unwilling investment and sip non-alcoholic beverages under its shady limbs.

However, CAGW?s problem is this: pork barrel projects, like Bennett?s, are last minute, slip-in earmarks that use mostly out-of-state taxpayer dollars to pay for specific in state “non-essential improvements.”

In the case of federally funded drug testing, opponents of the hefty governmental donation rely on one major argument?the $3.3 million for drug testing is only the tip of the Olympic pork barrel iceberg. It represents the majority of Olympic pork barrel projects?expensive and ephemeral. Taxpayer dollars disappear just as quickly as when the government took them away in the first place.

For some senators, their peculiar pet projects are a drop in the fiscal pork barrel?$750,000 to study grasshoppers in Arkansas, $150,000 to create a potato breeder position in Idaho and $200,000 for sugar-beet research in Colorado.

However, for other senators, their pet projects are just a bit costlier?like $18 million CAGW estimates to host the world?s largest biennial bacchanalian celebration?the 2002 Olympic Winter Games?in Salt Lake City?s backyard.

Pork barreling is a lot like hide-and-go-seek. Whoever is the sneakiest in getting back to home-base without being caught, wins. And Robert Bennett just happens to be really good at this game.

Since 1998, the Department of Transportation has forked over nearly 25 percent of its Interstate Highway Maintenance and Bridge Improvement Discretionary Fund to Utah. And, about $10.5 million of Bennett?s at-the trough- treasure of more than $18 million is going toward transportation projects.

Bennett?s efforts aren?t the first to gain national attention. Critics have always targeted the Games as a financial black hole. However, the facts of the 2002 Olympics make the hole a lot more ominous. Compared to the Los Angeles Games?where the U.S. government only spent $75 million?the 2002 Games appear to have the governmental resources to pave Salt Lake City?s streets with gold?or at least with new cement.

Out of the $1.4 billion the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) allocated to Utah for the Games, $1.1 billion is dog eared for “highways, bridges, light rail, and bus systems.” The 1998 GAO report states that most of the money “would eventually have been provided regardless of the Olympic Games.”

However, during the Senate?s floor session, Bennett admitted that the $1.1 billion specified for various transportation purposes “may not have been spent as wisely or as prudently as if we had not had the pressure of the Olympics.”

Utah?s Olympic financial report card is not all gold stars. The GAO?s analysis explains that some of the federally funded Utah projects “are solely related to the planning and staging of the Olympic Games.” For example, a $47 million bus transportation system to carry visitors and athletes to and from venues. “These funds,” the report states, “would not be provided to Utah if Salt Lake City was not hosting the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.”

Therein lies the argument of many Olympic opponents. The federally funded 2002 Games sewer construction project, estimate at $2.2 million, along with expensive transient transportation, tree programs and other Olympic- provoked projects, burden American taxpayers who, typically, never see or enjoy a piece of the spending pie. Not that a new sewer system is anything to brag about.

However, Bennett is not alone in using American taxpayer?s money to fund such narrowly allocated pork projects.

In the 2001 fiscal year, Washington saw a 297 percent increase since 1997 in pork barrel spending. Listed in the national log-rolling record?a 200 page gem titled The 2001 Congressional Pig Book Summary?are 433 pork- barrel projects whose cost totals more that $18.5 billion.

Never fear, concerned and angered taxpayers, President George W. Bush is coming to the rescue! Bush has called for the establishment of a commission to eliminate pork barrel spending, and promises to reduce superfluous funding by $4.3 billion in the coming year.

Fortunately, Bennett is already out the back door. Thanks to his finely-tuned trough technique, Utahns are riding the smooth, gridlock free roads to new venues while taking in the cool mountain air?generously provided by the Olympic Tree Program, paid for by the American people.

If, like Utah, you?re on the lucky side of the pork trough, democracy tastes pretty sweet.

Laura welcomes feedback at: [email protected]”> or send a letter to the editor at: [email protected].