Right On: Taking federal handouts for ‘granted’; should St. George be beholden?

Money from the government. Composite image for illustration. | Elements courtesy of Pixabay, St. George News.

OPINION — Want funding for a small business in Appalachia? No problem. Contact the federal Appalachia Economic Development Initiative.

Need financial help marketing your organic food crop? You’re in luck. Call the federal Organic Cost Share Program.

How about funding to energize community support for your latest social cause? Send a request to the federal Social Innovation Fund.

Welcome to the wacky world of federal government grants that will hand out a planned total of $703 billion in 2018 to state and local governments and tens of billions more dollars to individuals.

A grant is a government cash gift with lots of strings attached. Virtually every federal department and many federal agencies offer grant money in over 900 different grant programs.

Taxpayers can rest assured that every grant is made “to fund your ideas and projects to provide public service and stimulate the economy.” Provided of course, your ideas match Washington, D.C.’s latest hot button or you represent a state or local government that has managed to get Congress to tailor grants to match its needs.

Why is our federal government doing these things? Why is it supposed to respond to every special interest like those above using your tax dollars?

Seven million college students are familiar with the country’s $28 billion Pell grant program for low income students’ college expenses. But “low income” includes many in the middle class.

My wife and I paid our son’s college expenses for several years until he got married. Now counted as a new household with little income, he qualified for Pell grants worth thousands of dollars a year from the Education Department. My wife and I saved a lot of money even though we had the ability to pay; taxpayers picked up the tab.

Grants are built into state and municipal budgets around the country. A quick look at our local government budgets shows how dependent we are on federal largesse.

The St. George 2017-2018 budget demonstrates federal money trickling down. St. George gets $2.3 million annually for SunTran, the city’s public transit system. The city received over $650,000 in federal funds to establish the Switchpoint Community Resource Center homeless shelter and gets about $500,000 in community development block grants annually. Add to these totals federal assistance with airport bond interest as well as funding for low income housing and our Metropolitan Planning Organization.

No wonder St. George City Councilman Joe Bowcutt said recently, “I know sometimes those things cause us to be beholden to the federal government, but I think sometimes without those grants or without some of that money, we’re pretty stressed to meet all the requirements we have from the state.”

Washington County gets $14.7 million of its $47 million budget from the federal government. The Washington County School District gets $21 million of its $251 million annual budget from the federal government and a whopping $115 million more from the state.

The federal government taxes us all, taking the money to Washington, D.C. The funds are parceled out to various agencies where a phalanx of bureaucrats dole them back out to individuals and to state and local governments. “Mandatory” funding formulas are prescribed by Congress. The rest are discretionary and depend on a mix of bureaucrats’ good intentions and their politics.

An argument can be made to justify this process. First, the federal government spends less to collect each tax dollar than do states and local governments. Second, in the name of social justice, needs vary across the country. For example, the quality of schools, roads and social services in Mississippi is generally lower than it is in Vermont.

But once it started, the idea of handing out federal dollars to benefit special interests has known no bounds. Program after program is added to the mix. Lobbyists work feverishly behind the scenes to shape spending programs to match their clients’ needs.

Examples of wasteful federal grants intended to curry favor with local constituents abound. Alaska’s famous $223 million “bridge to nowhere” was aborted before it got started. But as of 2009 a Pennsylvania airport in Congressman John Murtha’s home district cost taxpayers over $200 million yet served an average of only 20 passengers per day.

With federal funds come federal rules, regulations and guidelines “helpfully” prepared by bureaucrats in the far off District of Columbia. Local officials often find these regulations don’t fit the situation on the ground. They find themselves bending, twisting and force-fitting their programs and projects to make them acceptable or they call on their elected representatives to twist bureaucratic arms.

Recent Southern Utah examples include routing the proposed Northern Corridor through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and Santa Clara’s plan to develop 1,700 acres of mostly Bureau of Land Management land in South Hills.

The Republican Forum held a “Meet the Candidates” for St. George City Council on Aug. 11. Chair Larry Meyers asked each candidate to sign a pledge that included a commitment to “eliminate unconstitutional federal funding of municipal projects and programs.”

The spending restraint that Meyers wants and I applaud needs to come from the federal government. Until that happy day, states, local governments and individuals would be foolish to turn down “free” federal money, Larry Meyers and the Republican Forum notwithstanding.

I prefer local tax and spending decisions like school bonds, the RAP tax, and the recently defeated transportation tax. Let’s hope we get to vote on the biggest decision of all, the Lake Powell pipeline.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: hsierer@stgeorgeutah.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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4 Comments

  • statusquo August 24, 2017 at 8:23 am

    Sounds like the solution is for the federal govt to quit giving away taxpayer funds to local governments which would then by default force local governments to either decide to fund their own projects or pass on the project.

    As long as the Feds keep giving away our money, local governments will continue accepting it.

    I think national term limits are the only way to stop this insanity.

    • Brian August 24, 2017 at 9:35 am

      The solution is to have the federal government live within the box the Constitution created for it, which would mean being about 10% – 20% of it’s current size and function and taxation level. Then that money would stay within the states where it was meant to be, rather than going to DC to be redistributed based on lobbyists and back room deals. Would it still happen at the state level? Certainly, but it would be much less pernicious and much more local in its effects, and much more fixable.

  • comments August 24, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    disband the fuderal gubmunt completely. let ut return to mormon theocracy. pres monson will be our king.

  • utahdiablo August 24, 2017 at 9:48 pm

    Oh, with 20 Trillion in US debt? Just wait until the “Free” ride ends, and it will boys and girls….here’s the real time us debt clock, enjoy! … http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwipvqqdvPHVAhVGyWMKHV1jB58QFggnMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.usdebtclock.org%2F&usg=AFQjCNGiB_Hpta4GHtGKiVVUTRoaQmz8aQ

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