Flowerpots, trolleys and kayaks, oh my!

So-called reckless spending has been one of the Republicans’ top talking points in this year’s state legislative elections. Direct mail, television and radio commercials targeting at least two dozen incumbent Democrats have decried wasteful, pork-barrel spending. A few specific spending programs come up most frequently in GOP candidates’ messaging. Bleeding Heartland already discussed the misleading talk about “heated sidewalks” here. Three other popular examples of alleged out-of-control spending are $120,000 for flowerpots in Des Moines, $690,000 for trolley service in Des Moines, and $1.8 million for kayak waterways.

Follow me after the jump for background on those appropriations.

The money for flowerpots was included in the 2007 bill appropriating funds to state agencies from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund, Vertical Infrastructure Fund, the Endowment for Iowa’s Health Restricted Capitals Fund, and the Technology Reinvestment Fund. Section 1-g provided $120,000 in fiscal year 2008 “for the purchase and installation of decorative planters on state property west of the west capitol terrace” as part of large-scale remodeling near the State Capitol building. The bill (House File 911) passed the Iowa House and Senate on party-line votes.

Landscaping can be expensive, and the west capitol terrace covers a fairly large area, but I can understand why many people think that’s an excessive amount of state money to spend on decorative planters. Governor Chet Culver thought so too; he vetoed that line item when signing the bill in May 2007. From the governor’s item veto message:

I am unable to approve the designated portion of Section 1, subsection 1, paragraph g. This designated paragraph appropriates $120,000 for the purchase and installation of decorative planters on the west side of the West Capitol Terrace Project. Since Fiscal Year 2006, the West Capitol Terrace Project has received nearly $2.8 million in state funding, and I am approving an additional $1.6 million for this project again in Fiscal Year 2008.  I also believe that the local community interests should be able to contribute to the cost of these planters.

You wouldn’t know from Republican campaign rhetoric that taxpayer dollars were never spent on flowerpots in Des Moines, because Culver vetoed that funding. You also wouldn’t know that Republican-controlled legislatures approved significant spending for improvements to the west capitol terrace in fiscal years 2006 and 2007.  

The next point often used against Democrats is $690,000 for “trolley service in Des Moines” (which Republican candidates sometimes describe as “bus service for lobbyists”). This refers to the Capitol Complex Shuttle, which was launched in 2007.  The Des Moines Area Regional Transit operates this free shuttle, which travels on a loop in downtown Des Moines, with several stops on the west side as well as at the State Capitol. The bus service received $120,000 from the state general fund in 2007, $170,000 in 2008, $200,000 in 2009 and $200,000 in 2010.

Calling the service a “bus for lobbyists” in inaccurate, because any member of the public can use the shuttle. Republicans also don’t acknowledge that the city of Des Moines and local businesses also provide funds for this shuttle, or that parking near the capitol can be difficult for members of the public. (Try finding a parking place when advocacy groups have scheduled lobbying day during the legislative session.)  The irony is, the Democratic-controlled Iowa legislature hasn’t made public transit a funding priority by any stretch of the imagination. A long-term plan for transportation investments, which lawmakers approved and Culver signed in 2008, contained almost nothing for public transit. It’s too bad Republicans are scapegoating one of the few partially state-funded programs that does reduce Iowans’ need to use a car.

Finally, Republicans target $1.8 million for “kayak waterways.” This claim is exaggerated. An appropriations bill for fiscal year 2009 contained $1 million for water trails development and low-head dam improvements. However, that money was never spent, because after the devastating floods in the summer of 2008, Culver “swept” this funding (and money allocated to many other programs) to deal with flood-related costs.

In 2009, state legislators approved (on another party-line vote) $800,000 for the Department of Natural Resources to administer “a water trails and low head dam public hazard statewide plan, including salaries, support, maintenance, and miscellaneous purposes.” Republicans add the 2008 and 2009 appropriations together, without acknowledging that the first $1 million never went toward water trails.

I see how “kayak waterways” might sound wasteful to many voters, but improving recreation opportunities in Iowa benefits the public. Water trails bring tourists to small towns and rural areas, and make communities nearby more attractive places to live. Low head dams need to be addressed to keep paddlers safe. The best-known Iowa water trail project is being constructed where the Cedar River runs through Charles City.

Tom Brownlow, city administrator for Charles City, said he isn’t sure how many visitors the whitewater park will bring into the community, but the conservative estimate for how much money it will bring into town each year is $750,000 to $800,000.

“The project removes the danger associated with a low-head dam and enhances largely underutilized green space to create features that will be intensively used by our residents and visitors alike,” he said. “We’re happy to be the first such project in the state and we’ve worked hard to build a play area we all can be proud of.”

Iowa Democrats should be proud to have supported water trail development in appropriations to the DNR and as part of the I-JOBS infrastructure initiative.

The specific allegations on flowerpots, trolleys and kayaks aren’t as deceptive as what you may have heard about “heated sidewalks” in Iowa, but they play into a misleading frame about so-called deficit spending. This letter to the editor recently published in the Newton Daily News is a good example:

If issues don’t matter in this election, then they never will. Take, for instance, the mailing that State Senator Dennis Black has forwarded to absentee voters. On his postcard, the 30-year incumbent proclaims that he has worked to be “fiscally responsible.” I wonder what planet Black has been living on lately.

In the last two years, Black and the majority party in the legislature, of which Black is a member, have voted to increase spending 17 times the rate of inflation! As a consequence of their wasteful spending, the State of Iowa faces a $1 billion deficit.  Had Black and Governor Culver elected only to increase spending by twice the rate of inflation, we would today have a balanced budget.

For a politician like Black to pretend that he is fiscally responsible is an outrage. Is it fiscally responsible to vote to spend $120,000 on flower pots for the City of Des Moines? Is it fiscally responsible to vote to spend $690,000 for trolley service in Des Moines? Is it fiscally responsible to vote to spend $1,800,000 for kayak waterways? All of these pork barrel votes were made by your fiscally responsible State Senator, Dennis Black, all done during a financial crisis now referred to as the “Great Recession.”

In this election voters can and should send a message to spendaholics like Black and Culver – “Your time is up!”  I am proud to be in a position to vote for a real, revolutionary change by electing responsible and honest leaders like Terry Branstad for Governor and Joe Pirillo for State Senate. Culver and Black have got to go.

Iowa doesn’t have a billion-dollar deficit. We have a balanced budget with a larger than anticipated surplus. Moreover, Black voted for flowerpot money and early appropriations for the shuttle bus and water trails before the “Great Recession” began. But why let facts ruin a good rant?

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