Gehrke: Oops! Utah lawmakers did it again, spending your money on frivolous projects.

Robert Gehrke

A lot was made about how absurd it was for taxpayers to be stuck contributing $1.5 million to the Orrin Hatch Center for Ego in Democracy.

There was enough consternation, even among Republicans in the Legislature, that eventually legislative leaders took the money away from the center, akin to a presidential library for the retired senator (technically it was going to the Kem C. Gardner Center coordinated with the Hatch Center), to spend elsewhere.

And what exactly qualifies as more worthwhile? Try $500,000 for pony rides and cow milking at Thanksgiving Point. Or this one: This year, the state will also shell out $300,000 to help Vans — the company that makes the skate shoes your kids probably wear — build the planet’s second Olympic-caliber skate park at the Utah State Fairpark.

How have we managed to survive so long without a killer concrete shred-haven? And how was this not part of the Hatch Center plan?

Every year there’s a long list of groups that receive funding, often because of a close connection to a lawmaker. And some come back to that trough year after year.

One example — the Freedom Festival. It is a community gathering in Provo that culminates with a giant concert and fireworks show. It brings in tens of thousands of people, and this year, pop country giant Keith Urban will headline.

But freedom isn’t free, as they say. This year it will cost us $100,000. And it has pretty much every year since, I dunno, America became a thing.

Another regular asking for money is the Hill Air Force Base’s air show — Warriors Over the Wasatch, as it’s called. Now the Legislature has decided to just make it easy and give $200,000 a year to the air show for as long as it lasts.

And, once again, we’re going to prop up a Professional Golf Association tour event. The Utah Championship, as it is called, will get $175,000 and is co-sponsored by WebMD, whose symptom tracker has diagnosed the Legislature as suffering from rubbery spine and a propensity for making it rain.

These handouts, often called pork barrel spending, really are a rotten way to spend taxpayer money. There is almost never any actual accountability — no follow-up or reporting or scrutiny of how the money is spent. Even when there is, nothing seems to change.

Take one of the worst examples of wasting taxpayer funds: wolf delisting.

Since 2010, taxpayers have pumped millions of dollars into Big Game Forever, a sportsmen’s group that has ostensibly fought to get the wolf removed from the endangered species list. In 2013, a highly critical legislative audit noted that the money couldn’t be tracked, funds had been commingled and there were no clear metrics for measuring the effectiveness of the program.

Legislators responded over the next several years by putting even more money into the delisting effort. This year we’re dumping another $2 million into the effort.

And here’s the thing: There aren’t wolves in Utah.

Oh, sure, there may be one wandering down from Idaho or Wyoming. There was one caught in a trap in 2015 and another shot near Beaver a year before. But they are extraordinarily rare. We’d be better off spending that money on the Hatch Center. At least we know there’s an Orrin Hatch that has been spotted in the state from time to time.

Ryan Benson of Big Game Forever reported to a legislative committee that the delisting effort was nearly complete, probably culminating later this year. “We’re closing in on a big payout,” said Benson, who it seems has already got his payout.

What makes this kind of frivolous spending even more annoying is when the Legislature pleads poverty as its excuse for not addressing really vital needs.

For example, we have a legitimate crisis when it comes to affordable housing, and Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, had a bill that had been worked on all year by housing advocates aimed at removing some of the obstacles to alleviating our housing shortage.

It had a big price tag, $24 million, and it would have taken a lot of air shows and pony rides to make that up. But something, anything would have been better than nothing, which is what it got. Nothing.

“I was told that we were going to be given something, even a very little something,” a frustrated Anderegg tweeted near the end of the session. “But once again, empty promises. Not sure if House and Senate leadership are really committed to affordable housing. Apparently not.”

Maybe we can resolve two funding problems at once by renting out space in the Orrin Hatch library for people who can’t find an apartment.

But it’s hard to argue with Anderegg’s criticism. In any legislative body, money follows priorities — the real priorities, not the ones that are given lip service and sent away.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, was trying to get the state to spend some money to make sure Utahns are counted in the 2020 Census, which has a direct impact on every Utahn, because that count dictates how federal funds are allocated. The state funding request had the support of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, the Salt Lake Chamber and The United Way, but came away empty-handed.

I end up writing this same column every year about supposed fiscal conservatives being anything but conservative with our money, and nothing seems to change. The good news is that this year maybe things just might.

Instead of bringing groups to the Hill to sing for their supper, lawmakers allocated an additional $2 million to the Department of Heritage and Arts and directed groups wanting money for arts projects or museums to apply to the department for grants. It is seen as a significant shift within the arts community, one that had been years in the works. The grants will, hopefully, be awarded more on merit than who has the most pull in the Legislature.

It’s a small step that was years in the works, but maybe it will help reduce our Legislature’s pork addiction.