Friday, August 12, 2011

Gary Palmer and Cameron Smith: Advocacy grants: You can't have fries with that!

  The news that federal tax dollars are being used to raise taxes and impose regulations on individuals and business at the state and local level does not come as much of a surprise to most Americans. Sadly, the federal government regularly imposes its will on individual states by using the power of the federal checkbook.

  States routinely surrender their autonomy in areas such as education and health care in exchange for federal funds. Often, these are costly arrangements for the states, but state legislators and bureaucrats enter into them with eyes and state coffers wide open.

  What should shock even the most jaded taxpayer are recent changes to the terms of that arrangement by the federal government. The Obama Administration is now funding special interest advocacy to promote their own legislative priorities in order to control American behavior and limit personal freedoms.

  In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued hundreds of millions of grant dollars to fund "evidence-based community preventive health activities." Funding for these grants comes from $650 million via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus), and hundreds of millions more will come from the new health care law - The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). The PPACA fund that supports these grants will increase each year until to 2015 when it hits $2 billion a year. In Alabama, Jefferson County received a $13.3 million CDC grant. Of that amount, $6.3 million will target obesity.

  These grants are, in large part, designed to reduce consumption of "unhealthy" food, drinks and tobacco by raising taxes on the products and increasing regulations on the businesses that sell them. The CDC grants are already targeting the food, beverage, and tobacco businesses and their consumers by funding efforts to:

•    Pass zoning laws to ban new fast food restaurants and reduce the "density" of fast food restaurants
•    Manipulate prices and directing product placement in convenience stores
•    Propose taxes on soft drinks and other sweetened beverages
•    Require stores to dedicate specific floor space to "healthy" food and beverages
•    Limit advertising of "unhealthy" items
•    Ban the sale of tobacco products in stores that have pharmacies

  Congress should not spend billions of taxpayer dollars to tell Americans what they already know: smoking has health consequences, regularly eating fast food will lead to a hefty waist line, and soft drinks loaded with sugar have little nutritional value.  

  Unfortunately, many legislators and bureaucrats have an unyielding desire to create their own "perfect" society. Because Americans tend to be a boisterous independent bunch, governmental control through purse or penalty has become an ideal way for many politicians to promote their personal ideals.

  Where federal politicians and bureaucrats have not been able to gain consensus or may not even have constitutional authority to act, they have created grant programs to entice state and local politicians to impose their agenda. When federal dollars back a particular viewpoint in a state issue, thoughts and opinions from outside the state can persuade legislative and regulatory actions. This practice directly undermines the ability of states to make informed decisions based on the input legislators receive from their constituents.

  The results may prove costly for state residents. For example, a tax on potato chips supported by federal grants may make little difference in obesity rates in Alabama, but it could easily cause some workers at companies like the Birmingham-based Golden Flake Snack Foods to lose their jobs. And that example may not be too far from reality. Currently, 28 states and the District of Columbia have instituted sales taxes on soft drinks, and 20 states have also begun taxing snack foods such as chips and pretzels.

  Tax increases and market choice restrictions always harm economic growth. Instead of "shovel ready" jobs promised with the stimulus money, these grant programs have a chilling effect on jobs creation at a time when the U.S. economy and American taxpayers can ill afford the added burden. The only jobs this money will be creating belong to the special interest groups promoting the government's priorities.

  Aside from the intrusion into state and local affairs, these advocacy grants are in murky legal waters. Federal law prohibits federal appropriations from being used to influence any member of any level of government, or to support or oppose any legislation, law, policy, or appropriation. Many of the programs instituted under the CDC grants push legislation or policy changes that appear to breach this federal prohibition. How can a grant recipient fund the push for a soft drink or snack tax or a fast food zoning restriction and not be supporting legislation?

  Today, Americans enjoy tremendous freedom of choice when it comes to eating, drinking, and recreational activity. However, this freedom cannot be taken for granted. Targeted federal spending is gradually eroding individual choices and steering Americans toward eating and drinking in a manner consistent with the standards of Washington bureaucrats.

  Most people understand the importance of healthy choices, but when the federal government spends tax money in an attempt to force behavioral changes and impose a lifestyle agenda on America, they have gone too far.

  About the authors: Gary Palmer and Cameron Smith are with the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

  This article was published by the Alabama Policy Institute.

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