Gibbons Accused Of Pork Barrel Politics For Hometown

Congressman Jim Gibbons, R-Nevada
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Critics call it pork barrel politics.

Rep. Jim Gibbons says it has more to do with polliwogs.

Like others who defend the federal money they secure for pet projects in their districts, the Nevada Republican is not ashamed to elbow his way to the federal trough on behalf of his constituents.

After all, he reasons, everybody else in Congress does it. And if he didn't, the money would go to somebody else's district.

But Gibbons' explanation doesn't stop there when it comes to the $225,000 he expects Congress to approve in the coming week to fix up a 61-year-old public swimming pool a block from where he grew up in a working class neighborhood in Sparks.

"I have an enormous guilty conscience for putting frogs in the swimming pool when I was about 10 years old," Gibbons told The Associated Press.

Gibbons, 58, disclosed a year ago it was he and some friends who were responsible for the infamous "Polliwog Caper" that clogged the drain with tadpoles and temporarily shut down the Deer Park pool in the 1950s.

"I cannot think of a better way to spend $225,000 than to give the children of Sparks a swimming pool," he said in a telephone interview Thursday from Las Vegas.

"This is a very meritorious project, one that I am not embarrassed about at all," he said.

Anti-pork crusaders at watchdog groups like Citizens Against Government Waste are unmoved by his story.

"Pork is pork," said Tom Schatz, president of the Washington-based group trying to rally opposition to the $820 billion omnibus spending bill they say is "stuffed to the brim with parochial projects."

"I'm sure the people in Sparks appreciate it, but if the money was going to build a swimming pool in Carlsbad, Calif., would they be happy?" Schatz told AP.

"At some point, somebody has to say this is a local project or a state project and you shouldn't be asking the federal government for this money."

"Every town in the country has a public swimming pool. If every one of those got $225,000 from the federal government, that's how you end up with a $500 billion deficit."

The group uses its own criteria for determining whether a project meets the "pork" test, including those line items that were not requested by the president, were not specifically authorized by committee or were requested by only one chamber of Congress.

As is traditionally the case with massive spending packages, the bill is studded with thousands of items designed to fuel support: Billions of dollars in so-called earmarks - projects specifically for lawmakers' home districts and programs of local importance.

Neither party has provided definitive figures on the number of earmarks. But one table alone lists 902 economic development projects worth $278 million, up slightly from the 882 items that cost $261 million in the same section a year ago.

Schatz said that because all the district-specific spending the bill was added during conference committees rather than voted upon on the House and Senate floors, "everything in these bills would qualify" as pork. He questions how a swimming pool will generate economic development.

"I'm not sure what you get for it other than a couple of lifeguard jobs and some maintenance work. I just don't see the federal role here," Schatz said.

Gibbons said it shouldn't matter if the spending was requested by President Bush or authorized by other congressional panels.

"Who cares about the process? The process is irrelevant," Gibbons said.

"People in Sparks pay a lot of taxes and the fact is some of that money is going to come back and benefit people who live in the city of Sparks and anyone else who visits that pool.

"If it didn't go to Sparks, it would go somewhere else, like Little Rock, Arkansas. And I'd rather have it go to Sparks than Little Rock, Arkansas."

Gibbons said he and other members of Nevada's tiny congressional delegation - two senators and three House members - have to fight for every dollar they can get for the Silver State. He said Nevadans get back only 73 cents on every $1 they contribute to the federal government in terms of taxes.

"The District of Columbia gets back $6 for every $1 they spend," Gibbons said.

"I think there is no greater way for the state of Nevada to get back its own taxpayers' dollars than through projects like this. It's just one of those balancing things."

Local leaders attest to the need for repairs at the modest pool built in 1942, one of the oldest recreation sites in the city neighboring Reno.

"I wouldn't call it pork barrel at all. I would call it maintaining a useful and productive municipal park," said Stan Sherer, director of parks and recreation for the city of Sparks.

Leaky pipes need to be fixed and a filtration system replaced, he said.

"It serves a very important role in that community," he said. "It's one of the better used facilities in the city and there are very few other recreational or open space opportunities on the west side of Sparks."

The 90-by-45 foot pool and smaller wading pool sit across the street from the Mexico Lindo Market and Budget Used Furniture and Appliances in the nearly century-old neighborhood with big pine trees, small houses and weathered white picket fences.

A state historical marker outside the pool's chain link fence says it is near the site where the Southern Pacific Railroad established a westward division point in 1903.

City officials approached Gibbons a year ago for help in securing the money after they determined it would cost $2.5 million to build a new pool.

"I don't think anybody would argue with the use of those funds if they were to visit the site on a hot summer day and see kids learning to swim and using the facility as a recreational outlet," Sherer said. "Where would those kids be if they were not using it?"

Gibbons scores well on the annual voter scorecard issued by Citizens Against Government Waste. He earned 83 percent earlier this year and has a career ranking of 77 percent. The group considers 80 percent to 99 percent a "taxpayer hero," and 60-79 "taxpayer friendly."

"That 83 percent rating, we think that is great," Schatz said. "But again, pork is pork."

"Certain members will say they will do this because everyone else is doing it and they figure they need to get their fair share. But there are members of Congress who do not ask for money like this if it's not authorized or in the president's budget or approved by both the House and Senate," Schatz said.

"There's just not enough of them."


On the Net:

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.:

Citizens Against Government Waste:

City of Sparks: