HOPF: Wasteful spending often appears in eye of beholder

Posted: Oct. 21, 2012 1:47 am Updated: Dec. 2, 2012 2:15 am


Do you ever wonder what would happen if a rattlesnake and a robotic squirrel crossed paths?

Well, researchers at two California universities teamed up find out by building a robot and storing it with live squirrels so it had a real animal smell.

The researchers at San Diego State University and the University of California Davis used part of a $325,000 National Science Foundation grant to build the robotic squirrel, aptly named RoboSquirrel. Test revealed that snakes thought it was real and tried to bite the robot's head.

That was one of 100 examples included in "Wastebook 2012" released last week by Seb. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican. He considers the more than $18 billion in projects listed in the report unnecessary, duplicative and low-priority projects in the federal government.

"The problem in Washington is politicians are very specific about what we should find but not specific about what we should cut," Coburn said in a press release. "As a result, we are chasing robotic squirrels and countless other low-priority projects over a fiscal cliff."

With the federal debt at $16 trillion, most of the examples appear wasteful -- such as $771,000 NASA spends to maintain an unused knowledge management database; $38,8 million in federal mass transit funding for the Alaska Railroad, where most riders are tourists and cruise ship passengers; and $150,000 the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission receives for the Lake Murray State Park Airport, where just one airplane lands per month.

One of the examples involves a popular program in Quincy -- the Big Read.

The National Endowment of the Arts distributes $1 million to organizations nationwide "to read, discuss, and celebrate one of 31 selections from U.S. and world literature." The NEA says the program is "designed to revitalize the role of literature in American culture and to encourage citizens to read for pleasure and enlightenment."

"Wastebook 2012" sees it as waste, however, noting that most of the novels the program sponsors are required readings in high school and college literature classes, and that most of the money is being used for activities that have little to do with reading.

The Quincy Public Library is now in its fifth year of participating in the Big Read, aided by a $7,500 grant from the NEA. The library gave away 1,400 paperback copies of Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War novel, "The Things They Carried," earlier this month at the Illinois Veterans Home.

Some of the program's events include a community-wide book discussion at the Veterans Home, documentaries screenings related to the Vietnam War and the 1960s, and an original play "Carrying On: The Things They Carried."

A couple of events not specific to the book are geared toward more participation from teenagers -- a Hippie Halloween Happening Party and a tie-dye workshop. However, it's not like the library is using funds to throw a Star Wars party, which a Massachusetts library did with part of its $11,700 grant.

While grant dollars are used for the program, it also receives considerable community support. Among the sponsors are the Friends of the Library, the law firm of Dempsey, Dempsey and Moellring, Blessing Health System, Quincy University, the Quincy Art Center and Quincy Community Theatre.

Granted, it benefits Quincy, but the Big Read has more redeeming value than a robotic squirrel. Given the climate about spending in Congress today, however, everything is under the microscope.