In the old days, they used to call it pork barrel spending, where a member of the U.S. Congress would get funding for a local pet project to demonstrate his or her ability to help local constituents. And, of course, get reelected. One of the worst offenses involved the so-called “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, where hundreds of millions of dollars were dedicated to build a bridge to Gravina Island, which has a small airport and just 50 residents.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, the project, known as the Gravina Island Bridge, became a political football, symptomatic of what have come to be called “earmarks,” federal funds allocated for local projects that may, depending on your perspective of course, have questionable value.
In recent weeks, the right-leaning Fox News cable network began to run stories about silly projects of this sort in order to demonstrate how taxpayer dollars were being wasted. In retrospect, though, it seems strange they only began this practice after a member of the “other” political party became president. It’s not as if earmarks are anything new.
In any case, it now appears that Microsoft is immersed in a similar scandal, involving a plan to spend $11 million of stimulus money to help fund construction of a bridge that’ll connect two campuses at Microsoft’s corporate headquarters in Redmond, WA. Proponents of this project point out that hundreds of construction workers will get jobs as a result, at least until the bridge is finished.
But think about this for a moment. Microsoft has billions of dollars in the bank, and they are saving millions more as the result their recent decision to shed some 5,000 workers. True, they are paying a portion of the bill for building this bridge. But whether or not they should have paid the full tab has become a contentious issue, since they will gain most of the benefit from this project. What it means, in short, is that many Microsoft workers will get to their jobs far more quickly.
What is most troubling, however, is that a nearby structure, Seattle’s aging South Park Bridge, is apparently not being considered for repair or replacement under the stimulus plan or otherwise, and it is said to be in worse condition than the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis, which collapsed in 2007.
I am not necessarily suggested that a city shouldn’t treat its major employers well. Indeed, many localities have given huge tax benefits to attract large firms. However, it’s not as if Microsoft suddenly plans to abandon its corporate headquarters in a hissy fit if they were forced to write a larger check. So should the politicians who are responsible for this project be encouraged by local citizens to just send the bill to Microsoft and be done with it?
For those of you that don’t feel warm and fuzzy about Microsoft, I suppose that seems sensible. It’s also true that Microsoft provides steady employment for tens of thousands of local residents, and perhaps they do deserve a few incentives as a result, particularly if they’re sharing in the expense.
On the other hand, asking U.S. residents from around the country to contribute to this project as part of their income tax bills is something else altogether. Are Redmond’s financials so dismal that they can’t afford to raise the money themselves somehow, or simply convince Microsoft to shoulder more of the burden? Consider, for example, the interests people who prefer to use products from Apple and other tech companies. Even if $11 million represents only a small portion of the incomes of even more wealthy taxpayers, such as Steve Jobs, why should they be forced to cover this expense, based on the fact that this and numerous other earmarks were attached to the sprawling stimulus package?
However, despite the lurid headlines, I doubt that anyone is going to be able to alter the financial breakdown and convince Steve Ballmer to authorize a larger expenditure. Besides, there are worse abuses of federal money, such as one project involving construction of a pathway for salamanders. While I do approve of saving the lives of various and sundry lifeforms on our planet, that might just be a bit too much.
Then again, this is Microsoft, and sending a little abuse their way seems like a good idea. What do you think?