The 2020 Golden Turkey Award

Deep down, Minnesotans know their tax dollars are being wasted at the state level. They may not know how much of the budget goes to welfare, education or transportation, but they do know some part of it is waste.

How much waste? We’ve asked Minnesotans more than once in our Thinking Minnesota Poll over the years what percentage of the state budget they believe is wasted, and their answer is always just under 30 percent.

In a state with a reputation for good government that once again boasted the nation’s highest election participation, Minnesotans believe almost a third of the state budget is waste! How did perceptions get this bad?

Ten years ago, the idea of government waste was epitomized by a transportation worker leaning on a shovel by the side of the road. Today, it looks more like criminals defrauding the state’s childcare system by $100 million while bureaucrats make excuses, and no one loses his or her job.

It got so bad that Center of the American Experiment created a “Scandal Tracker” last year to chronicle the waste and abuse in state spending. Some of the most egregious examples include:

  • A senior Department of Human Services (DHS) official approved over $1 million in payments for a non-profit while serving on its board, using tax dollars to double the group’s revenue despite the conflict of interest.
  • The MNsure health exchange debuted with major technical problems including site crashes and hours-long wait times. Meanwhile, the executive director resigned after being criticized for taking a two-week vacation to Costa Rica while the system was in shambles.
  • A subsequent legislative audit found up to $271 million of taxpayer money wasted on MNsure subsidies to people ineligible for the aid.
  • The vehicle license and registration system overhaul (aka, MNLARS) was a huge failure wasting millions of dollars. A report later recommended scrapping MNLARS altogether after $100 million was wasted over 9 years of development.
  • The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) gave a $250,000 loan to a call center making Democratic Party fundraising calls that was never paid back.
  • The CEO of non-profit Community Action of Minneapolis was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing $800,000 in state aid for low-income heating assistance.
  • DHS failed to send bills to MinnesotaCare enrollees, then didn’t even try to collect $30 million in unpaid premiums.
  • Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ordered DHS to pay back $48 million in funds improperly paid to providers.
  • DHS admitted to overpaying Indian tribes $29 million in Medicaid, which had to be repaid to the federal government.
  • A federal audit found DHS spent at least $3.7 million on Medicaid coverage for dead people from 2014-2016.

After reading a list like this, it’s easy to understand why Minnesotans believe 30 percent of their tax dollars are being wasted.

Center of the American Experiment launched its inaugural Golden Turkey Award to highlight these examples of wasteful spending in the Minnesota state budget. State leaders will soon focus their attention on closing a $1.2 billion gap between expected revenue and spending in the next budget. The Golden Turkey Award is a light-hearted contest to bring attention to the budget and allow Minnesotans to weigh in on the silliest spending of the year.

“We can already hear the drumbeat for higher taxes to support runaway growth in the 2021 state budget,” says John Hinderaker, president of Center of the American Experiment. “The Golden Turkey Award brings attention to wasteful state spending in a way everyone can understand. Focusing on the outrageous (but relatively small) expenditures will give legislators the courage to tackle the more mundane (and large) wasteful spending.”

This focus on relatively small expenditures was pioneered by U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) in 1975 when he gave out the first of many Golden Fleece Awards. Proxmire’s first winner went to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. In the context of a multi-billion-dollar federal budget, $84,000 may not seem like much money. But Sen. Proxmire understood that Americans could relate to $84,000 a lot easier than $1,000,000,000.

The inaugural Golden Turkey Award here in Minnesota takes the same approach. To prove to Minnesotans just how inefficiently our tax dollars are spent, American Experiment embarked on a quest to find the most wasteful, useless, and just plain silly government expenditures worthy of the Golden Turkey Award.

The nominees are below.

Nice work if you can get it

$900,000 to let your grass grow wild

You’ve heard of the government paying farmers not to farm, right? Minnesota added a new twist to this concept by giving homeowners $350 grants to not grow grass in their yards.

According to the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF), the Lawns to Legumes program “seeks to combat population decline by creating new pollinator habitat and habitat corridors that provide food sources and nesting space for pollinators.” The $900,000 program was targeted at saving the rusty patched bumblebee, which recently made the federally endangered species list.

One reason silly projects like this get funded is the source of the money—constitutionally dedicated funding. Despite the state’s $1.2 billion deficit, the Legacy Committees in the House and Senate and the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) will make recommendations to the full legislature on how to spend around $360 million in dedicated funding per year on projects benefiting the environment, water quality and the arts and cultural heritage.

Because the money is there and must be allocated for these constitutionally dedicated purposes, sometimes the normal scrutiny and discretion of the legislative process isn’t followed. A lot of the funding is handed out to state agencies and quasigovernment organizations like the State Arts Board. These organizations then award grants to individuals and small groups to carry out projects that meet the mission of the funds.

This multi-layered grantmaking process is how we end up with silly and wasteful expenditures that would never make it through the legislative process on merit, such as paying your lazy neighbor $350 to let his or her lawn grow wild.

$1,000 to explore our feelings about climate change

Every year the Legacy Fund (another constitutionally dedicated funding source), doles out millions of dollars of sales tax revenue to projects for clean water, outdoor heritage, arts and cultural heritage, and parks and trails. And every year, there are some really questionable expenditures that qualify for the Golden Turkey Award.

This year, the Legacy Fund set aside $1,000 of your money for a woman to host a hands-on climate mapping workshop where participants create maps of their personal emotional terrain of climate change. Does anger over really wasteful spending count as “personal emotional terrain”?

Dedicated funding handcuffs legislators in times of budget crisis and forces them to stubbornly fund wasteful projects like these while other parts of the budget suffer.

Runner-up

Tourism through Twitter: Two tweets a month for $57,000

How much should the State of Minnesota spend every year promoting tourism? On the one hand, it’s not the role of government to advertise and promote the State Fair or your private fishing resort. On the other hand, every state does it, and attracting people to come to Minnesota does create job opportunities for many towns and regions in the state.

One of our Golden Turkey Award nominees for wasteful spending shows how easy it is to move from a legitimate state purpose to just plain silly. In the name of tourism and promoting the state, Explore Minnesota (our Department of Tourism) recently paid $57,000 to celebrity chef (and erstwhile Minnesotan) Andrew Zimmern to tweet twice a month as a “social media influencer.”

Nothing against Zimmern—he is certainly proud of his adopted home state and not shy about promoting Minnesota to his 1.2 million followers on Twitter. But $57,000 for two tweets a month is a lot of money to most Minnesotans, and it’s awfully hard to track whether or not we got that much in return for his “influence.”

It didn’t help that Zimmern used the hashtag assigned for this project (#onlyinMN) to also tweet nice things about his favorite Minnesota Democratic politicians.

Did Explore Minnesota want Democrats and Republicans to travel to Minnesota? Resorts and restaurants don’t ask for party affiliation when they take reservations.

Winner

The $6.9 million (thankfully, still) vacant Tim Walz morgue

You might think the surge in COVID-19 cases in Minnesota would have hurt the chances of the $6.9 million morgue winning our inaugural Golden Turkey Award for silly spending. You would be wrong.

No matter how concerned they are about the virus, Minnesotans overwhelmingly agree that buying a shuttered fruit warehouse in St. Paul to serve as an emergency COVID-19 morgue was a bad idea. The morgue was the winner of the Center’s first Golden Turkey Award with over 60 percent of the vote. When the Governor bought the abandoned fruit company warehouse back in May, the state was averaging 12.5 deaths per day. Like many of Walz’s early predictions, his estimation of the need for storing 5,100 bodies at a time scared Minnesotans into giving up more and more of their freedoms in return for safety.

“We need a morgue for 5,100 dead bodies? Maybe I’ll end up there.” You can’t blame Minnesotans for being scared when the state’s top leader sends this message.

The good news is we haven’t needed the morgue—not even close. According to channel Fox 9, the state is using it to store PPE after spending more of your money to spruce up the parking lot and fix the bathroom.

Minnesotans know spending $6.9 million on a morgue to handle COVID-19 deaths isn’t necessary, and that’s why it won the Golden Turkey Award. They also know these small examples of wasteful spending are indicative of much larger waste in the state’s $51.1 billion budget for 2022-23.

When asked by our Thinking Minnesota Poll this month about the best way to address a budget shortfall, 63 percent of respondents said “cut spending” while only 19 percent said “raise taxes.”

That’s why Center of the American Experiment’s latest report “Closing Minnesota’s Budget Deficit,” from economists John Phelan and Martha Njolomole, is so important. It provides a roadmap of research, data and suggestions for Gov. Walz and the legislature to follow to close the $1.2 billion budget deficit for the next biennium. One conclusion: Growing Minnesota’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will have a much stronger impact on revenue growth than raising state tax rates.

When it comes to state spending, the report found that Minnesota’s welfare spending is the third highest in the country and nearly double the national average.

Minnesotans won’t be surprised to hear a statistic like that because they’ve been watching state government waste money for years. State leaders could build faith with taxpayers by eliminating wasteful spending and passing a budget that solves the deficit without raising taxes. If they don’t, something tells us it won’t be hard to find a new batch of Golden Turkey nominees this spring.