Tennessee may not be one of the nation’s biggest pork-producing states, but a new report shows the state can hold its own with the best of them when it comes to special interests gobbling up the contents of the public trough—in other words, pork-barrel spending.
For the 14th consecutive year, the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee has issued its annual “Pork Report,” and the 2019 edition is a bittersweet reminder to taxpayers that their hard-earned money can easily find its way into the pockets of the well-connected and unscrupulous. From corporate welfare and cronyism to out-and-out thievery, the report rolls out no fewer than 25 examples of waste, fraud, and abuse.
Although some of the more outrageous examples are delivered with humor, the report leaves little doubt that misusing the public trust is serious business, says Beacon Vice President for Communications Mark Cunningham.
“Let’s hope the ‘Pork Report’ will show taxpayers how inefficiently their money is being spent,” Cunningham said.
Shaken, Not Stirred
In designing a new $2 million visitor center at Reelfoot Lake State Park, paid for by state and federal taxpayers’ money, designers forgot the location, about 100 miles north of Memphis, was close to the infamous New Madrid fault. The fault is widely predicted to bring a catastrophic earthquake in the next 50 years. Crews had to take down the partially built center because it did not meet earthquake standards, wasting $700,000 in taxpayer money.
“On top of that, a state audit found the Mississippi River Corridor-Tennessee, a nonprofit awarded management of the project, failed to obtain competitive bids,” the Beacon report states. “There was a conflict of interest when a contract was awarded to an architecture firm whose partner served on the nonprofit’s advisory board.”
The Tennessee Arts Commission pocketed more than $6.5 million in taxpayer funds to increase participation in all areas of the arts, including music, the report says.
“However, with Memphis and Nashville as two of the main cities where everyone from aspiring musicians to incredibly successful artists move to, it begs the question as to why state government continues to fund music awareness through the Arts Commission,” the report states.
Transfers to Billionaires
Cash-strapped Rutherford County, home to the City of Murfreesboro, raised property taxes for all homeowners by nearly 6 percent to help fund “the rising costs of building schools” in June 2019. But just three months later, county leaders decided to give a new Costco store nearly $1 million in property tax relief, “meaning that everyday taxpaying citizens just getting by are being forced to pay higher property taxes to cover Costco,” the report states.
Murfreesboro also raised property taxes to cover its losses on dubious spending priorities. Murfreesboro has been losing more than $150,000 a year on the Richard Siegel Soccer Complex, but instead of cutting its losses and selling the facility to the private sector, the city is doubling down, adding to the complex, and upgrading the lights, all to the tune of $14.5 million.
“Even with the city’s promise to turn the deficit into a $115,000-per-year profit—which definitely won’t happen—it would take 127 years to pay off the debt,” the report notes.
Pork for Pigskins
From Memphis to Chattanooga and every place in between, there continues to be a massive amount of government waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the state, Cunningham says.
“The cities of Memphis and Nashville continue to ‘lead’ the state when it comes to wasteful spending,” Cunningham said.
Nashville, the state’s capital city, paid the National Football League $3 million in tax dollars to hold its draft in the city. After the 2018 season, NFL teams shared net revenue of $8.78 billion.
“Why should Nashville, a city with an ever-growing debt situation, give an organization with that much wealth even more money?” the Beacon Center report asked.
Even though Nashville lost out in its bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, the city was offered a consolation prize: a 5,000-job Amazon operations hub. In exchange, state and local taxpayers handed over $102 million in incentives to the retail giant.
“That’s enough to buy every Nashville household an Amazon Prime account for three years,” the report stated. “What they’ll get is more traffic and less affordable housing.”
The Memphis City Council authorized $75 million in incentives for Graceland, Elvis Presley’s historic mansion.
“This came on the heels of veiled threats by the management company to actually move the mansion brick by brick from Memphis,” the Beacon Center said. “The council’s only stipulation was that Graceland couldn’t build an auditorium or theater to compete with the city’s other taxpayer-funded arena, FedEx Forum.”
The report pointed out Graceland pocketed $21 million in taxpayer money in 2015.
Neglecting Other Needs
It’s easy to laugh at some of these examples of corruption and ineptitude, but exploitation of taxpayers—whether in Tennessee or elsewhere—is serious business, says Craig Rucker, president of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.
“All the money that was wasted on these boondoggles could have gone to improving roads and bridges, upgrading underground water infrastructure, or some other useful public purpose,” Rucker said.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. (email@example.com) is a senior policy analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.
2019 Tennessee Pork Report, Beacon Center of Tennessee, Dec. 11, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/beacons-2019-pork-report