Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

The stimulus is funding what?

Stimulus dollars for martinis? The Internal Revenue Service kills happy hour.
Stimulus dollars for martinis? The Internal Revenue Service kills happy hour.

In an address on the anniversary of the economic stimulus, President Barack Obama boasted that despite the massive and rapid spending in the $862 billion package, you're not hearing about money being misspent.

"I was still concerned -- Joe (Biden) and I were just talking in the back -- when this thing passed we said $787 billion -- somewhere there’s going to be some story of some money that ended up being misspent; $787 billion spent out over 18 months, that's a lot -- that's a lot of money," Obama said. "And it is a testimony to Vice President Biden and his team that, as Joe puts it, the dog, so far at least, hasn't barked. "

Well, if you look at recent press releases and public statements from Republican leaders in Congress: woof, woof. And furthermore, woof.

On the same day Obama made his speech, House Republican Leader John Boehner issued a press release saying the stimulus is "chock-full of wasteful government spending." And he attached a list of 19 "real world" examples.

And Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell put out a press release titled "Stimulus Anniversary Gifts to Taxpayers: One Year of Spending Taxpayer Dollars Studying Malt Liquor and Marijuana, Researching Drunk Mice, Funding Martini Bars and Steakhouses, and Examining Facebook." It lists another 15 stimulus projects.

We decided to look into a sampling of the projects on those two releases to see if they were as billed. Generally, we found that some are. But in many, the projects exist, but have been worded to present them in the worst possible light.

We're not defending or damning any of these projects. But again, in many cases, there's a little more to the story than the attention-grabbing one-liners suggest.

Here are a few examples from Boehner's list:

• "$15 million dollars went to 'build a bigger, better airport' for the town of Ouzinkie, Alaska, population 165."

This project landed in the national spotlight when it was singled out in a CBS Evening News report on July 13, 2009. "That's roughly $90,000 dollars per resident," the report said.

"Consider that Los Angeles International doesn't have the money to install critical taxiway warning lights," the CBS report states. "And a third of the nation's largest airports -- 11 of the 30 biggest, handling over one-fourth of the nation's passenger traffic -- have substandard safety areas for when planes veer off the runway."

A lengthier story three days later in the Kodiak (Alaska) Daily Mirror included some defense of the project. To put the project in perspective, some locals said, you have to understand Ouzinkie, and the importance of air travel. Ouzinkie is a small, island village peopled predominantly by Native Alaskans called Alutiiq.

Or as ProPublica.org put it in an article titled Tiny Airports Take Off With Stimulus: "The village of Ouzinkie is one of the remotest outposts in the United States — home to a mere 165 people on an island off another island off the coast of Alaska. There are no stores, no gas stations and no stoplights."

Because of its remoteness, villagers depend on its airport as a lifeline for mail, medical evacuations and supplies. The location of the existing airport, local officials told the Kodiak Daily Mirror, is exposed to fierce crosswinds that often make it impossible for planes to take off and land, and the site does not meet FAA-mandated runway length. The new project includes a runway, taxiway, airport lights, a snow removal equipment building and 2 miles of access road.

"I’m sorry the airport has to cost so much, but essential services are essential air services," Ouzinkie Vice Mayor Tom Quick told the Kodiak Daily Mirror. "They are essential, whether you’re talking about five people or 5,000."

Quick also said planes have been much more convenient in transporting the dead, who otherwise were transported via skiff.

"I feel this is very necessary in case somebody needs to get a medevac out," added Jill Boskofsky, vice president of the Ouzinkie Tribal Council and environmental director. "I feel it's for the safety of our community."

In an opinion piece for the Anchorage Press, Krestia DeGeorge called the CBS report "sensationalizing" and told people to "quit picking on Ouzinkie."

Airports in Alaska are a more important part of the basic transportation system than they are elsewhere, she wrote, and, "The point is that we should think carefully about what’s really involved before criticizing something. ... Otherwise (things) such as Ouzinkie’s lifeline will continue to be someone else’s taxpayer waste."

• "$7 million to build a bridge in Thedford, Nebraska, to help 168 residents avoid a 30 second wait at a local train crossing. Not one full-time job will be created."

This one leaped to national fame thanks to a Jan. 28, 2010, report on CNN. Based on the the population of Thedford, the reporter stated, "That means the project cost of $6.9 million breaks down to $41,000 per resident on paper."

It's true that $7 million in stimulus funds was awarded to build a viaduct allowing traffic to pass over BNSF Railway tracks on U.S. 83 in Thedford, instead of crossing directly on the tracks. And it's fair to say, based on those quoted in the CNN report as well as in the Omaha World-Herald on July 19, 2009, that a lot of locals think it's a huge waste of money.

But the two-sentence description in the Boehner release presents a slightly distorted picture. While the population of Thedford is 168, about 1,273 vehicles a day cross the tracks and about 60 trains a day pass through, according to the World-Herald. And while some locals say the wait for a train passing is sometimes as short as 20 seconds (or as long as 3 minutes), Nebraska Department of Roads officials cited safety, not convenience, concerns as the impetus for the project (though no accidents have been reported at the crossing).

Nebraska officials told the World-Herald that U.S. 83 serves as a main route between two cities, and that a train derailment or track maintenance could shut the crossing down for an extended time. The nearest north-south route is at least 25 miles away.

"It’s a project that qualifies under our rules and regs, and it's a good project. It eliminates a lot of exposure, and it provides some tremendous continuity to our highway system," Ellis Tompkins, rail and public transportation engineer with the roads department, told the World-Herald.

We're not going to weigh in on the merits of the project, but we did want to point out one other distortion in the Boehner claim, that "not one full-time job will be created" by the project. The CNN report notes that only a few locals were hired as temps, including a woman who worked part-time for a couple of months for $10 an hour waving a flag. A Colorado contractor won the bid for the project and is using its own out-of-state workers. So locals complained that it wasn't creating jobs for people in Thedford. But that doesn't mean it didn't create any jobs -- only that those jobs went to people in Colorado, less than 100 miles away.

"$123,000 for “security measures” to protect the Spirit of Boston party cruise ship from terrorist attacks. Entertainment Cruises -- the company which owns the Spirit of Boston -- said: 'We feel that we’re really a low threat for a terrorist incident. But the stimulus was a nice perk.'

This one comes courtesy of a Boston Globe story on Nov. 19, 2009. And it's pretty straight-forward.

Entertainment Cruises Inc., the owner of the Spirit of Boston, was awarded nearly $1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect the company’s vessels from terrorists in Boston; New York; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Norfolk, Va.; and Chicago, the Globe's story explains. Of that, $123,000 was designated for its Boston boat to pay for an alarm and surveillance system, among other security measures, said Gary Frommelt, vice president of marine operations.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said it accepted 218 of the eligible 420 grant applications under a program to increase port security, and owners of U.S.-inspected passenger vessels, such as Entertainment Cruises, were encouraged to apply.

• "$25,000 to provide free concerts in Sacramento, California"

This project was highlighted in the Sacramento Bee on Nov. 28, 2009. And it's also accurately described.

As the Bee story explains, the Sacramento Philharmonic got a $25,000 grant to offer five free family concerts in the Sacramento region.

"For us, the stimulus money is really crucial because part of what we do is provide concerts in the community. We lose money on these concerts. If we did not have that money, the whole community aspect of what we do would have been cut," Marc Feldman, executive director of the Sacramento Philharmonic, told the Bee.

And here are a couple from McConnell's list:

• "$100,000 in stimulus funds used for a Martini Bar and Brazilian Steakhouse"

This one has made the rounds. It appears on Boehner's list as well and has been cited by several Republicans as an example of stimulus waste.

The short answer on this one is that it's true, or used to be. This claim refers to two projects in St. Joseph, Mo., that were awarded Community Development Block Grants by the city, with funds from the stimulus. The martini bar owner, who had been awarded $25,000 to expand his existing business, withdrew his application for the federal funds on Jan. 21, 2010, after it was discovered that the company had liens placed against it by the IRS and the state for failing to pay a little more than $8,000 in taxes, said St. Joseph's Community Development Manager Gerald McCush.

"You get no funds from the stimulus if you owe the IRS money, sorry," McCush said.

So, the martini bar is getting no stimulus.

As for the steakhouse, a city committee awarded $75,000 in Community Development Block Grant recovery money to ECBG LLC, a private company, to build a Brazilian steakhouse downtown.

"We are trying to revitalize the downtown," McCush explained. "That is a priority for the City Council. We have a pretty blighted downtown."

In all, the city received $475,000 worth of Community Block Development Grant funds from the stimulus. A city committee that included two City Council members, two representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, a city planner and some other city residents decided on the projects from among $2 million worth of requests.

The steakhouse was selected not only because it met the city's priority for revitalizing the downtown, McCush said, but also because it would result in a number of new jobs. The steakhouse will anchor a downtown building that includes several other retail spaces. Construction of the building employed roughly 60 construction workers, McCush said, and the restaurant is expected to employ 30 people full time.

The restaurant is scheduled to open in April.

• "$219,000 to study the sex lives of female college freshmen"

We couldn't resist checking this one out.

Especially after reading a Sept. 8, 2009, story in the (Syracuse) Daily Orange, that begins, "Five hundred Syracuse University freshmen will divulge the details of their sex lives as part of a women's health study" ... paid for with $219,000 in stimulus funds.

Alas, the academic rendering of the study on the government's stimulus Web site, recovery.gov, doesn't read nearly as provocatively:

"Scientific Rationale: The transition from adolescence to adulthood involves important developmental challenges. Events during this key developmental phase can profoundly shape and influence academic and occupational achievement as well as affect health outcomes. During this time, women are particularly vulnerable to a number of health threats including depressive, anxiety and eating disorders; psychosomatic conditions; intimate partner coercion and violence; and sexually transmitted infections. Understanding gender-based health disparities is an important public health goal. Preliminary scientific reports suggest that intimate encounters between partners who have no expectation of a romantic commitment may be increasing and that these encounters may be partly responsible for gender-based health disparities. However, little research has investigated the health consequences of such encounters using a large sample, a longitudinal design, reliable and valid measures, and sophisticated data analyses."

Later, it's translated more plainly: They will study the physical and mental health consequences of hookups.

In other words, this is a public health study (funded through the Department of Health and Human Services), not a submission to Penthouse.

The two-year survey will track health-related behaviors such as tobacco use, alcohol use, exercise and physical activity, sleep and sexual behavior as well as psychosomatic and mental health symptoms. The findings will be used "to inform parents, educators, medical and public health professionals, and to guide the development of more effective health promotion and disease prevention programs."

In the Daily Orange story, the man conducting the study, Syracuse University professor of psychology and medicine Michael Carey, defended it as a worthwhile study that will help improve approaches to intervention in women's health.

"The Women's Health Project includes sexual behavior … because of the increasing recognition that social and health problems are linked to sexual behavior … and that there has been little scientific study of the topic despite its potential health implications," Carey said.

"Women have been traditionally neglected in health research, even though they are disproportionately vulnerable to a number of health threats," such as sexually transmitted diseases and eating disorders, Carey said.

Although Carey applied to the National Institutes of Health for funding long before the stimulus was even being considered, he said stimulus funds are appropriate for the study.

"The funds invested in this project do help to support jobs and will quickly find their way back into the local economy," Carey said. "Moreover, investing in health and health research is as important to the revitalization of our economy as are investments in our physical infrastructure."

As for the jobs, there won't be many direct ones. According to the recovery.gov synopsis, the study will involve a half-time research assistant and part-time temporary assistants.