"Noah's Ark" Floats On Your Tax Dollars

Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
The subject of my report tonight on the Evening News is a half million dollars earmark of federal tax money to help built a child's playpark for a private charity in Los Angeles: the Skirball Cultural Center. The playpark is called "Noah's Ark." What's the controversy? Some believe that federal tax dollars shouldn't be used for such earmarks, especially when it can be argued that many necessities are underfunded.

To do this story, I wanted to visit Noah's Ark myself and interview the head of Skirball: Uri Herscher. At first, Skirball said "no." I argued that public money had helped pay for the playpark, after all, and that the Skirball enjoyed non-profit (special tax-exempt) status courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. It just didn't seem right that the Center would try to lock out the press and refuse to do an interview. The Skirball eventually allowed the visit and interview to happen.

Noah's Ark is the kind of place most any kid would like to visit. In fact, the playpark has been pretty much sold out every day since it opened a few months back. In the eyes of some fiscal conservatives, that's part of the problem. When I asked just how much money Noah's Ark was bringing in from ticket sales, the Skirball said an average of $16,000 a week. With such success, will taxpayers be repaid on their investment? No. Earmarks don't require any such thing.

Here's another issue. I took some time and researched the financial health of the Skirball Cultural Center. It's incredibly wealthy, as far as charities go. It survives off a $100 million endowment. It lists $885 million in gross receipts for 2005 (its most recent tax return). The executives earn healthy six figure salaries and enjoy healthy annual raises. Few would begrudge them that. The question is: is this the type of project that really needs or deserves federal tax money?

The third problem raised by some critics of this earmark is that (they say) it circumvents the normal budgetary process. There is money available in the federal budget for arts, museums and other cultural interests. In fact, Congressman Henry Waxman who got the Skirball its earmark told me he'd tried to get funding through the normal process but when it didn't work, he went for the earmark. (It's worth reminding folks here that an earmark is a quick grant of public money by a member of Congress without the normal public review. Often it's a pet project in the home district.)

When an earmark is granted, there is no requirement that a budget for the project be presented or verified, no requirement for the requestor to justify the need for money, no competitive factors by which other legitimate projects have a chance to get some of the money, no requirement for proof to be submitted showing how the money was actually spent.

A final argument against earmarking for such projects is that there is an endless number of worthy projects in the country, but not nearly enough federal tax dollars to fund all of them. Why should a group that simply knows the right people or the right processes have an advantage over hundreds of thousands... if not millions... of worthy causes and projects that are traditionally funded privately or with state and local funds?

The Skirball Center has several friends in Congress. Senator Dianne Feinstein tried to get the Skirball additional earmark money but it didn't work out. And Congressman Waxman twice tried to get the Skirball an extra $1.25 million on top of the $550,000 the Skirball had already received but for technical reasons, that didn't go through either.

After having visited Noah's Ark, I'd say if you have kids, happen to be in Los Angeles, and can manage to get tickets, it's worth a visit. Mr. Herscher seems like a great guy and the Skirball press folks are sharp and couldn't have been nicer, once they agreed to let me visit.

But it's not as if Noah's Ark wouldn't have been built without your tax money. Mr. Herscher told me if the federal government had turned down the money request, he'd have gotten the cash elsewhere. It's just that the federal money can be so easy to get when you know the right people in Washington. Scandalously easy in some cases.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.