A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

This political photo-op cost taxpayers real money.

Questionable spending by government is practically the rule rather than the exception, but some examples can make even jaded, long-time observers scratch their heads in wonder.

Here’s one: The Michigan Department of Natural Resources gives grants to many local governments for public recreation projects and programs. Last year more than $550,000 was expended by the state for this purpose, with the money coming from the voluntary $10 state park passes purchased when drivers renew their annual vehicle registration. All that is fair enough, but here’s where it gets weird: From this pot of money, the DNR also spent more than $1,000 last year to buy those giant “trophy” checks that politicians and bureaucrats love to give away in photo-ops staged for the media.

Last year this recreation program gave out 24 grants to communities as diverse as Portage and Flushing Townships, Detroit and Grand Rapids. They didn’t just mail checks at a cost of 44 cents each, however. Instead, DNR bureaucrats drove to the local communities and publicly presented the fake, oversized checks with plenty of back-slapping and mutual congratulations all around. That’s $1,000 spent just on stage-props for PR nonsense associated with just one state grant program, plus all the other expenses incurred including travel and time taken from these bureaucrats’ real jobs.

Given the existence of dozens of state grant programs, it’s possible that much more is spent each year on such promotional self-serving. A Mackinac Center Freedom of Information Act request uncovered that prices for this program’s giant “checks” ranged between $12 to $64, with the annual cost totaling $1,025.95. A small amount was expended on related personnel and travel expenses, but they were also delivered in state vehicles, so a proper accounting of time and materials would render an expense somewhat higher.

This political photo-op, above right, occurred at a monthly Flushing Township board meeting. The person accepting the “check” is township trustee Michael Gardner, who is considered an advocate of limited and frugal government. He told CapCon that during the meeting a DNR official took the podium to describe the driver’s license “Recreation Passport” program and then — with a dramatic pause reminiscent of TV game shows — announced that Flushing Township had won some $18,000 in grant money. Gardner says he was surprised to learn the fake check cost taxpayers $64, not to mention the other expenses incurred by state bureaucrats taking time away from their supposed duties to engage in PR puffery.

“I’m disappointed,” he told CapCon. “Even when officials try to do the right thing by soliciting funds with a voluntary program, they still taint it by wasteful spending.”

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See also:

Using Your Money to Get Your Money

Using Taxes to Lobby for Taxes

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