Renovating a $1-Million Tax-Funded Pool

The city of Banning, Calif., 25 miles west of Palm Springs in the Mojave Desert, sits in the congressional district of House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R.), who was recently dubbed “Earmarker in Chief” by the Wall Street Journal.

Nonetheless, when Banning wanted federal tax dollars to build a new swimming pool, it sought the help of Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist David Turch, whom the city hired in 2004.

“The existing pool will be demolished and in the same location—the same footprint—we’ll build the new pool,” said Chris Millen of Banning’s community services department.

Banning has already received $1 million in federal earmarks for the project, while Millen said some estimates for the pool’s construction run as high as $4 million.

That sounds like a lot of money to others familiar with pool construction in Southern California. Mike Roudebush of San Diego’s Mission Pools said his company carried out a similar municipal pool project in Hemet, Calif., that cost that city around $1.2 million.

Last month, Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), an avid pork buster, offered an amendment that would have stripped out a new $500,000 earmark for Banning’s pool project that had been inserted into the fiscal 2007 Transportation-Treasury-HUD-Judiciary-District of Columbia Appropriations Bill. Flake’s amendment lost, receiving only 61 votes.

“Often these earmarks are for groups that have been unsuccessful in competing for these grants so they say bag it, let’s just hire a lobbyist and get an earmark,” Flake told Human Events.

Wasteful spending isn’t the only thing about earmarks that has Flake fired up to end them. Many earmarks are written to be deceptive about what the money is really for. “You can be as vague and dishonest as you want to be and never get called on it,” said the congressman.

Take, for example, the language in three separate appropriations bills that have awarded Banning money for its swimming pool. A 2004 earmark gave Banning $250,000 “for construction and renovation of the city pool.” A 2005 earmark awarded another $250,000 “for city pool improvements.” And a 2006 earmark gave Banning $500,000 “for renovations to the city-owned pool.”

Banning, however, is not “renovating” or “improving” its pool. It’s demolishing it and building a new one. Because of the sequential nature of the earmarks, it is not clear how much federal taxpayers will eventually be required to pay for this pool.

Banning is not unique in receiving earmarks to pay for local building projects. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation wrote in a recent study that the number of pork-barrel earmarks has grown from about 950 in 1996 to nearly 14,000 in 2005. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, earmarks rose from $15 billion in 2000 to $27 billion in 2005.

The House this month approved the Legislative Line Item Veto Act, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.), to give the President the power to rescind line-item earmarks from spending bills.

“The culture [in Washington, D.C.] is so heavily tilted toward spending,” Ryan said. “The whole premise of doing business is to redistribute more money back to my district, so I can be popular.”

Lawmakers who try to fight the pork-barrel culture often face uphill battles in Congress and with their constituents. “Under the current system, I’m penalized,” Ryan said. “I’m not bringing home the bacon to my district.”

Ryan hopes his bill will help change that culture, because it will allow the President to shine a spotlight on wasteful spending. “This puts pressure on a member of Congress to justify his activities and particularly how he spends people’s money,” he said.

The bill would allow the President 45 days after signing a spending law to submit a package of cuts from it (or rescissions) for Congress to vote on. A simple majority vote would make the cuts permanent.