A new report from the Associated Press indicates that lawmakers around the country have been spending money allocated by the federal government for COVID-19 relief on projects bearing little relation to the pandemic. Hundreds upon hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have gone to purely local pet programs classically considered to be “pork barrel spending.”
Local governments are always happy to start a new construction project, especially if the cost is distributed to taxpayers around the country. Broward County, Florida officials spent $140 million in relief funds on a luxury 29-story hotel with spectacular ocean views and an 11,000 square foot spa.
New Jersey saw an opportunity to boost its application to host the 2026 World Cup and spend $15 million of relief funds for soccer facility upgrades. The Woonsocket, Rhode Island city government decided to use $53,000 on a remodeling project at the city hall. Alabama boldly spent $400 million on building new state prison facilities.
Federal relief money has been coming in handy for covering shortfalls in local revenues. The nonprofit and financially struggling Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate got $5 million from Massachusetts lawmakers to help pay off debts. Washington, DC used $2 million to hire some new parking enforcement officers to hand out overtime parking tickets.
Apparently, recreation is important to efforts to soften the impact of the pandemic. Pottawattamie County, Iowa found the federal COVID money useful in purchasing a private ski facility. Colorado Springs looked around and found two golf courses that could use $6.6 million in pandemic funds for new high-end irrigation systems. Dutchess County, New York gave $12 million to the minor league baseball Hudson Valley Renegades to renovate their stadium. Puerto Rico thought $70 million on tourism campaigns was a good use of federal COVID funds.
There are also the just nutty local projects getting benefits as well. St. Louis needed $1 million to pay off expenditures made to cover unpaid child support and the relief funds came in handy. The city found that the burden of owing overdue child support stopped some fathers from looking for work since they would be at risk of wage garnishment. The city determined that helping pay down the obligation “empowers individuals” to get out and find a job.
Those are just some of the abuses that have been discovered so far.
The AP noted that permissive Treasury Department rules covering the use of the COVID funds mean that state and local governments face few actual limitations on how they spend the money.
Treasury Department spokesperson Liz Bourgeois proudly said the program was a success in helping local governments “recover from financial distress.” She said those local governing bodies are “accountable to their communities” on how they use the federal funds.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) warned last March that the American Rescue Plan and its $1.9 trillion of funding is an “orgy of pork.”