Not all government spending wasteful, neither is it all useful

Posted: Friday, January 07, 2005

"What's one man's pork is another man's job," Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., was quoted by Reuters news service as saying in 2001 after Citizens Against Government Waste named its top congressional "oinkers" for so-called pork-barrel projects.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was among those lambasted by the citizens group that year. Stevens brought home $480 million in "pork" to Alaska that year.

Byrd's comment and Stevens' track record for putting federal dollars to work in Alaska come to mind in light of two recent news articles.

One is a report out of Washington, D.C., in which Stevens warns Alaskans to expect a decline in federal spending in Alaska. The change won't be because Stevens no longer heads the powerful U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee but because of growing pressure on the federal budget from Social Security, Medicare and interest on the national debt, he said. It likely means less federal money for everyone.

While it's a favorite pastime to criticize all government spending as wasteful, that criticism usually ignores one important factor: Government spending contributes in big ways to an area's economy. Most people don't want to lose that benefit.

Just look around the Kenai Peninsula. Federal projects have left their mark all over: the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai, the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer — just to name a few.

And let's talk jobs. Government jobs employ thousands of Kenai residents. In 2002, for example, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was the largest employer on the peninsula with 1,325 jobs. The state of Alaska, not including the university system, placed second with 880 jobs. The federal government was the third largest employer with 428 jobs, and the borough, not including the school district, ranked fifth with 352 jobs.

Residents paychecks from those government jobs are all part of government spending — and an important part of our economy.

Also part of government spending is a recent $106,852 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to buy Central Emergency Services exercise equipment, teach CES personnel to be fitness trainers and provide for evaluation of the program and its participants.

If someone is going to get the money, it might as well be CES. We certainly don't begrudge them the money or the exercise equipment. Nor do we cast any blame or shame on the borough assembly for accepting the grant. Firefighters and ambulance crews certainly should stay in shape, which, of course, means a monetary savings in terms of lost-time caused by injuries and illnesses. That's admirable.

But if government officials and politicians sometimes wince at aspersions about wasteful government spending, they might want to take a look at such things as the exercise grant — and others which are far less useful. It seems ludicrous to think there's money somewhere for things like exercise equipment when some children go without health care and basic necessities. Money for schools is needed. What about roads and public safety? And what about real homeland security? While U.S. citizens are becoming accustomed to what not so long ago would have been considered a major invasion of privacy when they travel by air, does anyone really feel safer from terrorists? And, ultimately, shouldn't it be the personal responsibility of those who work in public safety to stay fit for their job if they want to stay employed?

Those in the know about the ins and outs of government budgets can argue all they want about the money coming from different pots, but in the public's eye, government money is government money — and that means it's the public's money. And lots of members of the public wish it were being spent differently, more wisely. Especially when the national debt now stands at a whopping $7.6 trillion and growing.

Are we ready to just say "no" to any and all government funds for things that seem just a tad frivolous? Probably not, especially when it means the money would go to another place but not to a better cause. But Sen. Stevens' warning that times are changing and federal spending in Alaska — and elsewhere — is likely to go down should be taken seriously. And as a society, we should probably look at our attitudes about government spending. It's only pork in someone else's back yard.

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