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UCDD Mansion Gets Dubious Honor in Beacon’s Pork Report

Last year, Wendy Askins was living the dream on taxpayer dollars. Now the former development agency official is winning prizes for it, too.

Askins used funds intended for the needy to support her own life of luxury, winning her the “Pork of the Year” title in an annual report by the Beacon Center.

The Mediterranean-style mansion that Askins purchased in rural Putnam County with money from the Upper Cumberland Development District was supposed to house poor senior citizens. But the agency’s former executive director moved in as well, outfitting the place with a sauna, chandelier and computer-controlled showers, as Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 reported.

Under the not-so-watchful eyes of elected officials charged with overseeing the agency, Askins reportedly put no fewer than five relatives on the district payroll, with a final cost to the public of $1.5 million, the report says.

The Nashville-based Beacon Center released its annual “Tennessee Pork Report” Tuesday, unveiling what the nonprofit think tank determined to be the most wasteful uses of state and local government money. The report’s authors pegged the district’s largesse as the “most egregious example of waste across the state,” prompting them to create a new title in its honor, the Pork of the Year.

Chris Thompson, mayor of Byrdstown and a member of the UCDD board, wasn’t surprised to find out that Askins’ fiasco had won.

“It’s kind of like government gone wild. If they’re going to misuse taxpayer money, they ought to be held accountable for it,” he said in a phone interview. Thompson has said he was not aware of the misspending until after certain meeting minutes showing the board OK’ing the spending were found to be bogus.

Askins and the UCDD are now reportedly under investigation by both state and federal authorities. Her lawyer told NewsChannel 5 in April there is no evidence she committed any crime, despite colleagues’ accusations of nepotism, checks that Askins wrote to herself after moving her own furniture into the mansion, and receipts showing she even paid for dog chow on the project’s account.

“There should be no way that an executive director can write a check to themselves,” said Jim Shulman, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, which held its own investigation of the Living the Dream project.

The case sparked resignations and hostility among members of the UCDD, and prompted doubts about how the state’s other development districts manage their funds.

“This isn’t an isolated incident. You have to be naïve to think that this is the only agency that this kind of thing is going on in, though maybe not as much as Living the Dream,” said Thompson.

Beacon Center executive director Justin Owen agreed, saying any of the state’s eight other development districts could be in line to win the porcine prize next year.

The Beacon Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has published the Pork Report annually since 2004, basing its findings on government budgets, media reports, appropriations bills, state audits, and research by Beacon Center staff.

About Half a Billion in Gov’t Bacon ID’d by Beacon

In Tennessee, taxpayer money has been used to dabble in the movie-making business, prop up car companies, and promote country music heritage — in Virginia.

Such projects are cataloged in a new Pork Report tracking $468 million in waste and public malfeasance in the past year, $216 million worth of loin, butt and chops at the state level, the Center says.

Authored by the Nashville-based Beacon Center, the report identified more than $182 million in what the center calls “corporate welfare.” Furthermore, “politicians went hog wild” spending the citizenry’s resources on what Beacon Center president Justin Owen described as “taxpayer-funded tourist traps,” including a country music museum in Virginia and a planned water-and-snow theme park in Nashville.

“Many times politicians try to convince us that somehow their visions are grander and more wonderful,” said Ben Cunningham, a Tea Party leader and spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt who Tuesday joined Owen at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “Sometimes they even try to convince us that they are a cut above — morally and intellectually above the rest of us — and that their grand, good intentions are somehow grander and more wonderful than the good intentions of the citizenry.

“But in fact, they’re ordinary human beings just like you and I, and they have to be held to the same standards that everybody else is held to.”

This is the seventh year the Beacon Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has published the Pork Report. TCPR was founded in 2004 by Johnson City-native Drew Johnson, who next month will succeed 70-year veteran Tennessee newspaperman Lee Anderson as an opinion page editor for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

State spending Beacon’s 2012 Pork Report identified as wasteful included:

  • $2 million in film incentives in 2012.
  • $1.5 million in economic incentives for GM to expand its plant in Spring Hill.
  • $266,200 to Volkswagen to put a sign, only visible from the air, atop its plant in Chattanooga.
  • $500,000 for a planned country music museum in Bristol on the Virginia side of the state line adjacent to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s district.
  • $88.7 million for pre-kindergarten, which has “repeatedly failed to have a significant lasting impact on the education of Tennessee’s children.”

“This year state and local governments didn’t hold back when spending taxpayers’ money,” said Owen.

Political responsibility for much of the iffy spending and sketchy programs pegged in the report can be assigned to fiscally conservative-talking Republicans, who run state government and are not expected to lose their grip on power in this year’s legislative elections.

“Republicans spend just like Democrats do,” Owen said. “And when you’re spending someone else’s money, you have an incentive to spend it unwisely.”

Although the report points to spending made on Gov. Bill Haslam’s watch, the governor contends his administration is already on top of cutting out pork spending.

“I can promise you that government waste has got our full attention. Now, waste is obviously defined different ways by different folks,” Haslam told reporters Tuesday after defending spending on Pre-K, economic development and tourism.

“One of the value judgements you make every year in the budget is, what are you going to fund out of a lot of potential good things and what are you going to cut out of several things that people have an opinion about whether that’s critical or just nice to have.”

The Center thinks much remains in the latter category and says the state should adopt a law to return excess revenues to taxpayers and set up a state spending commission to root out waste.

The Center advocates strengthening a 1978 state constitutional provision meant to rein in growth. If the state is considering spending that exceeds the growth rate in personal income, lawmakers are required to take a separate vote on the amount beyond that cap. The Center says this vote should require a two-thirds approval, rather than the current majority, and that the measure of personal income growth should be replaced by a figure based on population growth plus inflation.

TCPR Questions Merits, Fairness of Tax Incentives

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research was often critical of the Bredesen administration for its incentive packages aimed at attracting business. And now the nonprofit free-market think tank is scrutinizing the Haslam administration for the same issues.

TCPR issued the 2011 edition of its annual “Pork Report” Tuesday, saying it has found $371 million that state and local governments in Tennessee have wasted over the last year.

The report takes immediate aim at $140 million in state and local funds that will go to appliance maker Electrolux to build a manufacturing plant in Memphis. That deal was struck by former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s economic development team, but the Pork Report notes that current Gov. Bill Haslam has pledged $97 million in taxpayer money to follow through on the commitment.

Haslam has consistently said he intended to honor such commitments made by the Bredesen administration. House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told TNReport recently that while he finds it “distasteful” to offer tax incentives to entice companies to relocate to Tennessee, “unfortunately, that’s the playing field that we’re on.”

As with previous years, the Pork Report hammers on prodigal politicians and big-spending bureaucrats who in TCPR’s view play far too loose with tax dollars. Taxpayers can ill afford ill-advised spending in these troubled times, said TCPR president Justin Owen, who added that spending done in the name of stimulating the sluggish economy is often particularly suspect.

“As this year’s Pork Report shows, it’s times in economic calamity where citizens are faced with waste in their government as government tries to fix the economic problems,” Owen told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.

“We see this year in the Pork Report hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on economic development incentive packages, on energy and environmental programs,” he added. “While these things are often sold as a way to spur job growth, particularly the economic development incentives, they amount to nothing more than taking money out of certain taxpayers’ pockets and handing it to others — oftentimes large corporations in the form of corporate welfare.”

Owen said rarely have proponents of incentive packages demonstrated an appreciation of existing businesses.

“I will say that Gov. Haslam has signaled his intent to re-evaluate this process,” Owen said. “You saw just this morning, with Startup Tennessee, he is wanting to start focusing on some of those existing Tennessee businesses.

“We encourage that, and we hope that his administration will continue to move in that direction rather than continue to hand money to certain companies at the expense of others.”

But Owen said the state has spent “wildly” on environmental programs.

“We all know about the former governor’s affinity for solar energy, and it appears this governor will keep that going,” Owen said. “We have another $14.5 million going into innovative project grants for solar, even though solar accounts for a very tiny sliver of the overall energy market.”

Owen said the state will spend another $13 million to buy forests and wetlands in conservation efforts across the state and pointed out that the land is being bought with funds from the real estate transfer tax, meaning the land is being purchased on the backs of homeowners.

The Pork Report itself is a 28-page booklet that identifies what the authors call “waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement of taxpayer money by state and local government officials.”

“Despite a changing political landscape in Tennessee, wasteful government spending has not disappeared,” the report says.

The report does offer some solutions, calling on the Legislature to enact stricter spending laws. It calls for a “kicker” law that would require the state to “kick” surplus funds back to taxpayers. It says the state should strengthen the Copeland Cap, which has been on the books since 1978 and prevents the Legislature from increasing spending beyond the rate of personal income growth. TCPR says since a simple majority can override the Copeland Cap, that should be changed to a two-thirds vote requirement.

The governor’s office responded to the report.

“Governor Haslam is proud of the budget, which passed unanimously in the General Assembly and includes key investments, strategic reductions and savings for the future,” said David Smith, press secretary for Haslam, in an e-mailed statement Tuesday.

“He is focused on making Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for high-quality jobs, and while economic development incentives play a role in that process, it is also why he is focused on improving education and ensuring Tennessee has an attractive business climate.”

TCPR’s report also cited $13 million in federal stimulus funds going to the Port of Cates Landing in northwest Tennessee, noting Haslam has devoted $7 million from the state budget to help build the port. The Pork Report says statements by local leaders suggest “corporate welfare” might not have been necessary for the port, saying private money was secured to build the port if state and federal money didn’t.

The report criticizes $2.5 million in tax credits for purchasers of the electric-powered Nissan Leaf, which the report says could result in an increase in state gas taxes. Likewise, it challenges funds going to Wacker Chemie, the German chemical company locating a plant in Bradley County, and notes Haslam has pledged $34.6 million in the budget to expand the plant. The Wacker deal was another Bredesen project.

Elsewhere, the report takes a swing at state-run golf courses, calling for raising the greens fees or leasing the state’s courses to private businesses. The report called the course at Pickwick Landing State Park a “money-sucker,” saying it has cost the state $1.7 million since 2005.

On local government, the report takes note of news reports saying Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk David Torrence worked only three days a week, sometimes two, concluding he worked only 50 percent of the time for a job that pay $125,000 a year.

Ben Cunningham, spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt, called TCPR “an extraordinary resource to this state.”

“The most important budget of all is the family budget, the taxpayers’ family budget,” Cunningham said. “All other government budgets must first come from that family budget, and if that family budget is not healthy those other budgets will not be healthy.”

TCPR Releases Annual Report on Wasteful Government Spending

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, June 28, 2011:

“Tennessee Pork Report” Uncovers $371 Million in Government Waste Watchdog groups expose wasted tax dollars by state and local governments

NASHVILLE, TN – The Tennessee Center for Policy Research today released its 2011 Tennessee Pork Report, exposing that state and local governments across Tennessee wasted $371 million over the past year. For the sixth consecutive year, Tennessee’s premier free market think tank partnered with taxpayer watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste to document waste, fraud, and abuse at all levels of Tennessee government.

Examples of wasteful spending outlined in the 2011 Pork Report include:

  • $140 million to pay a European company to relocate to Memphis;
  • $14.5 million on an unnecessary solar energy program run by the state;
  • $2.5 million to provide tax credits to Nissan Leaf purchasers, which could lead to an increase in state gas taxes;
  • $131,000 to send utility district employees on exotic trips around the globe; and
  • $95,000 wasted by Nashville’s criminal court clerk who only works three days each week.

“Yet again, state and local governments failed to live up to taxpayers’ expectations by wasting their hard-earned money,” said Justin Owen, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. “With our economy in dire straits, the last thing government officials should be doing is offering handouts to corporations, dreaming up whimsical environmental programs, and using taxpayer money for their personal use. It’s time for them to become better stewards of Tennesseans’ money.”

In addition to exposing wasteful government spending habits, the report also offers three effective solutions to eliminate waste and promote more responsible, transparent government. The report serves as an informative and valuable resource for policymakers and taxpayers alike.

“Tennesseans should arm themselves with the Pork Report and hold their elected officials accountable for government waste,” said Ben Cunningham, spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt, who participated in the report’s release. “Only then can we truly cut the fat in government.”

The litany of examples of government waste, fraud, and abuse in the 2011 Pork Report come from state and local government budgets, media reports, appropriations bills, state audits, and independent research conducted by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

An electronic version of the report can be found at:http://www.tennesseepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2011-Tennessee-Pork-Report.pdf or www.cagw.org. Hardcopies can be purchased by calling (615) 383-6431 or emailing info@tennesseepolicy.org

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research is an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee through the ideas of liberty. Citizens Against Government Waste is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in government.