Your Tax Dollars Held Captive

Sharyl Attkisson is investigative correspondent for CBS News.
Here's one of the strange things about the $100,000 Congressional earmark for a Prison Museum in Kansas, the subject of my report tonight on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric: the money is for the interior of the museum, presumably for things like display cases. But the museum planning isn't even far enough along for anyone to know how much is needed for the interior. In fact, before anyone can really think about the interior, the town of Lansing, Kansas has to raise about $3 million to build the outside of the museum, and the hard core fundraising hasn't even started.

Some would say giving $100,000 commitment of federal tax dollars to a local museum that may never be more than the current 3-D putting the cart before the horse. What if I told you that the Kansas member of Congress who got the earmark, Nancy Boyda, actually asked for more than ten times that amount for the Prison Museum in her home state? It's true. She put in for $1.18 million tax dollars for the museum. That amount was apparently whittled down by her fellow Democrats.

When I asked Rep. Boyda why she wanted so much money for the Museum, she said it's simply because the Lansing, Kansas Mayor asked. "We get all kinds of requests (for earmarks) and, for the most part, we made the request that we were asked," Boyda told me.

It sure makes her sound generous with our tax though all one needs to do is get Nancy Boyda's ear, ask for federal money for a project, and she'll comply.

When I asked Rep. Boyda why federal tax money should pay for a local project that is apparently designed to help the local economy, Boyda gave a big picture answer. She said the Prison Museum would in effect be a sort of memorial to fallen prison guards who do some of the most dangerous work in the nation. When I interviewed the Mayor of Lansing who's in charge of the project, he never once mentioned the Museum as a memorial. Besides, there already is a national memorial for fallen law enforcement officers in Washington D.C...built, by the way, entirely with private funds.

There are other issues with this earmark. When I interviewed Rep. Boyda she wasn't really sure how the money would be spent. In fact, no detailed budget had been presented justifying the specific need for the money, or committing to specific details of how the money would be spent. That seems to be the story with most earmarks. They're lump sums of money, arbitrary-sounding round numbers, handed out to projects that members of Congress may know little about. You see $100,000 earmarks a lot in the House. In the Senate, you see a lot of $300,000, $450,000 and $500,000 earmarks. $500,000 for "education experiences" in the Chesapeake Bay. $450,000 for "future foods research." $3 million for "Mormon cricket activities." Congress has been giving millions and millions of tax dollars each year to local cities for blackbird management, beaver management, wolf management and deer management... but the wildlife seems to be winning out because the money is often sent again the next year. (Maybe the cities aren't finding better ways to control the wildlife because Congress keeps giving them money).

How about this one: help the Alaska salmon industry develop salmon-flavored baby food: $450,000 tax dollars.

Does anyone really know if it takes $450,000 to develop salmon-flavored baby food? How hard is it... don't you just mash up some salmon and blend it in? And the baby-food-salmon cause has been getting earmark money for years... if they haven't developed salmon-flavored baby food yet, is it because they're incompetent? Are babies clamoring for salmon-flavored baby food? I even heard a rumor yesterday that there already is salmon-flavored baby food on store shelves. If someone has already developed it, why are we still paying to develop it?

If the Kansas Prison Museum is ever built, it could be really cool. If I happen to go back to the beautiful town of Lansing and the Museum is there, I'll be sure to pay a visit. Maybe I can get them to waive the admission fee to the museum by arguing that I helped pay for it.

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