Cut Polluter Pork

by Carolyn Chase


ith tax day looming, you may be wondering more than usual how your hard-earned taxes are spent. The sad fact is that in addition to many worthy programs, taxpayer dollars are used every day to pollute our air and rivers, subsidize ill-planned growth and destroy our natural resources. At the same time that you're sweating over the new tax forms, politicians in Washington are deciding this year's handouts and subsidies to wealthy, established, polluting interest groups.

To fight these wasteful, harmful programs, environmentalists and fiscal conservatives have formed an alliance: the Green Scissors Campaign. Over the last five years, the coalition has helped cut programs which would have cost nearly $20 billion and degraded the environment. Led nationally by USPIRG, Friends of the Earth, and Taxpayers for Common Sense, the "Green Scissors '98" report targets 71 environmentally-harmful and wasteful programs costing taxpayers nearly $50 billion.

These federal programs include:

  • unwanted and unnecessary highway projects which promote "urban sprawl"
  • taxpayer-funded clear- cutting of our national forests
  • handouts to nuclear, coal and oil industries
  • continued giveaways (at 1872 rates) to mining companies encouraging devastation of public lands
  • below-market costs for grazing which promotes overuse and pollution of watersheds
  • agricultural programs which encourage intense pesticide and fertilizer overuse

These programs, to one degree or another, are all "polluter pork" -- examples of the private sector benefiting unfairly from our hard-earned tax dollars, without making fair restitution and restoration to the systems they are benefiting from.

One of the most appalling programs is the taxpayer-funded destruction of our national forests. Instead of managing the 192 million acres of publicly-owned forests for the public's benefit, the U.S. Forest Service spends our money building roads and subsidizing the timber industry. The Forest Service actually charges less for the trees than it costs to administer the program.

The timber industry claims that logging is necessary to provide jobs for the community. The reality is that logging provides less than three percent of the jobs in our national forests while tourism and recreation create 33 times more. Investing in forest restoration and sustainability makes much more economic sense than subsidizing unsustainable destruction.

According to the General Accounting Office, taxpayers lost nearly $1 billion from 1992-94 in subsidies to support the timber industry cutting the National Forests. According to the Wilderness Society, over the last nine years, the U.S. Forest Service has lost $2.8 billion on the timber program. Nationally in 1996, this wasteful program cost taxpayers over $204 million. Here in California, state timber sales cost taxpayers $21 million that same year.

At best, they are converting national forests into national tree farms. At worst, in return for our money and trees, the timber industry leaves acres of stumps, mud slides and polluted streams in our once-majestic national forests.

Unfortunately, the timber industry does not feed alone at the federal trough. Despite the Clinton Administration's pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the President's budget actually contains a hefty increase for coal and oil programs, key contributors to both pollution and federal election campaigns. The "Green Scissors '98" report uncovered more than $1.2 billion in taxpayer-funded research programs for the these wealthy corporations that are also major polluters.

These industries emit the majority of greenhouse gasses which are threatening our global climate. All aspects of oil production have other severe environmental consequences. Burning coal is a leading source of air pollution, including mercury, smog, and soot. These programs benefit giant oil companies that are certainly capable of funding their own research programs. Instead, they're on the gravy train.

The Clinton administration doesn't rate much better than Congress when it come to cutting polluter pork. A recent report card issued by the Green Scissors Campaign gave the Administration a disappointing "D" in cutting wasteful, environmentally harmful programs.

While Uncle Sam is the king of pork because of his national reach, local largesse can be found in sweetheart lease deals, below-cost infrastructure fees, and other "special arrangements" where private costs are off-loaded on to the public or the environment.

At best, environmental protections are still considered negotiable. Pollution permits often go unenforced or are allowed to lapse. Variances, deviances and all manner of exceptions are allowed. Environmental regulations are manipulated, mocked and subverted. Public assets are continually put into play in service of special interests, with the public good and environmental protection taking the back seat to economic growth. In reality, they are absolutely interdependent, but politicians dance to a different reality in the short term.

Most elected officials and business people love to tout their support for both the environment and the economy. But most also continue to vote for special deals and spend taxpayer money to degrade and destroy the environment. It's called lip service to the environment and corruption of the status quo.

Elected officials should stop wasting our hard-earned money on programs which hurt us -- once in our pocketbooks and twice by polluting our environment. It's time to take the Green Scissors to polluter pork at all levels.

Carolyn Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times and founder of the EarthFair in Balboa Park which takes place on April 19th from 10am-5pm. She can be reached at . Green Scissors campaign info is available locally from CALPIRG, a non-profit, non-partisan environmental and consumer watchdog group with 65,000 members in California.