Monday, August 14, 2006 - by Drew Johnson, President of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research
This week, Tennessee hosts the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). At first glance, hosting NCSL — which serves as the professional organization of state legislators — seems like an exciting opportunity to welcome more than 1,000 state legislators from across America to the Volunteer State. A closer look, however, reveals a pork party that lavishes legislators, lobbyists and other guests with tours, activities, trinkets and meals funded by Tennessee's taxpayers.
The host state of the NCSL meeting is required to subsidize much of the cost of the event by picking up the tab for transportation, entertainment and children's activities, among other things. For the NCSL meeting in Nashville, Tennessee's state legislature allocated up to $1.4 million state tax dollars to squander on the soirée.
What does that $1.4 million buy? Attendees will receive one of 2,000 Tennessee-themed T-shirts. Country music fans can enjoy a backstage tour of the Grand Ole Opry House, lunch at the Wildhorse Saloon and sightseeing on Music Row. There's also a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame replete with dinner, carnival attractions and an Elvis impersonator. For children of attendees, there will be an "Xbox video game challenge," ice skating, bumper cars and a trip to a children’s science museum.
All of this will occur at no cost to the legislators, lobbyists and others attending NCSL. Instead, it will be fully financed by the taxpayers of Tennessee.
The bulk of this money, like most money consumed by the state government, comes from the state sales tax applied to goods and services sold in Tennessee. Most Tennesseans would agree that it is wholly inappropriate to tax baby food, work boots and aspirin to pay for visiting politicians and lobbyists to visit the Opry House and eat at the Wildhorse. Unfortunately, it appears that our governor and General Assembly believe otherwise.
State spending on NCSL doesn't end there. At budget time each year, state legislators manage to slip in a funding request to pay their NCSL dues with state tax dollars. This year alone, state taxpayers will spend $156,000 to pay for NCSL dues. If legislators wish to be members of NCSL, the dues money should come from their salaries or campaign funds, not from the pockets of taxpayers.
In addition to the waste of state tax dollars, the NCSL meeting will consume hundreds of thousands of federal tax dollars as well. Thirteen federal agencies have purchased booths at the meeting at a total cost of nearly $20,000, and taxpayers will spend thousands more to send federal employees to Nashville. Despite this hefty expense, it is hard to imagine what benefit could come to taxpayers, state legislators or the federal government from having these agencies represented.
When NCSL isn't busy picking the pockets of state taxpayers for conferences or membership dues or shaking down the federal government to purchase display space, the organization is busy encouraging the federal government to fund state pork projects, such as a $100 million rural road and a waterfront development project in Alaska. Worse still is that the NCSL meeting is held, in part, to offer lobbyists the opportunity to cozy up to state legislators from every corner of America at one place.
Instead of showering politicians and lobbyists attending NCSL with more than a million Tennessee tax dollars, the Tennessee General Assembly should serve as an example to other state legislators by cutting off state funding of NCSL dues and conferences. Wasting tax dollars to show visiting politicians and lobbyists a good time might be fun and games for Tennessee's state legislators, but for the taxpayers who pay for the festivities, it's nothing to celebrate.
(Drew Johnson is president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization committed to public policy remedies grounded in the innovation of private enterprise, the ingenuity of individuals and the abilities of active communities to achieve a freer, more prosperous Tennessee. For more information, visit www.tennesseepolicy.org.)