Adding Up the Earmarks

Rich Tucker

7/25/2008 12:01:00 AM - Rich Tucker

Saratoga, N.Y.—Where does money come from? Some in this lovely town think they know the answer: Albany.

On July 18, the 79-year-old majority leader of the New York State Senate retired. Before he left office, Joe Bruno took reporters on a day-long bus tour of the various projects in the capital region that he’d earmarked financing for.

There was $33 million for a supercomputer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, $50 million for the Albany airport (which now sports a bronze bust of the outgoing politician), and $10 million for the Rensselaer train station. “Before Exit, Bruno Delivers for Troy,” a local newspaper headline claimed.

There’s no doubt Bruno brought home the bacon -- or at least kept it in the Albany area. When he took office 32 years ago, “the legislature was very dysfunctional and didn’t operate efficiently,” Bruno told reporters. “I changed all that.”

But a conservative (Bruno is a Republican, but no fiscal conservative) prefers dysfunction. A state where lawmakers cannot agree on anything is, at least, a state where they’re not agreeing to spend money on frivolous projects.

And if these projects were so important, why didn’t private industry finance them? If airlines want to land at Albany, they can build a runway. If the high-tech wizards at Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google want a supercomputer, they’ve got the cash to finance one. Perhaps the reason New York state had to pay the bill is because the projects weren’t critical in the first place.

These days, though, “this place operates like a clock,” Bruno says. And not just any clock. “A clock that works, and that’s good for everybody.” That might be true if the clock were a time clock, and a private company was paying people to punch in and work. But as New Yorkers should be painfully aware by now, the state government does little well except spend their money.

To raise cash for all those train stations and supercomputers, the state must either tax productive citizens or borrow it. And citizens will end up paying back loans through higher taxes, anyway.

Worse, this state spending isn’t helping.

New York’s finances are a mess. Its tax rates are among the highest in the country. It loses residents in every census, as younger people move to more taxpayer-friendly states, leaving behind those who are more likely to benefit from the state’s lavish welfare programs.

Meanwhile the state’s leaders keep stirring up dubious ways to spend money -- such as the $50 million recently set aside to create three new law schools.

It’s unclear how more new lawyers would help New York. After all, its most famous lawyer, Eliot Spitzer, became governor by suing everyone in sight. That didn’t work out so well when it turned out he was the one who felt free to flout prostitution laws.

Of course, our federal government is making the same mistakes New York State is -- just on a grander scale. Earmarking is as popular in the District of Columbia as it is in Albany’s Capital Region -- and even more dangerous. The federal government is making more promises than any state, and they’re promises it cannot afford to keep. This matters in the long- and short-term.

In the long-term, to keep Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid afloat, lawmakers will eventually have to choose between slashing spending on every other federal program (including national defense), cutting retiree benefits (good luck getting re-elected) or raising taxes (to a level that would destroy the economy). That’s why the time to slash spending is now, while we still can.

Meanwhile, in the short-term, the National Association for Business Economics says 45 percent of the economists it surveyed expect slow economic growth the rest of the year. Especially in an election year, that’s sure to encourage politicians to “do something,” such as create make-work projects to supposedly spur economic growth. They wouldn’t work, but they would be costly.

In 1777, American fighters repulsed a British invasion at Saratoga, a victory that eventually brought France into the war on the colonial side and led to our final victory. Decades later Americans were smart enough to open the first horse-racing track in North America here.

Yet if Joe Bruno’s triumphant bus tour is any indicator, we’re still a long way from winning the war against wasteful pork-barrel spending -- at both the state and federal levels. Overspending by any government is a gamble -- one that taxpayers lose.