- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fall is in the air and local governments across America are celebrating by using tax dollars to help subsidize everything from pumpkin patches, hay rides and haunted corn mazes to an event that would make “Modern Family’s” Cameron Tucker proud: launching Halloween pumpkins thousands of feet into the air.

What is supposed to be a scary season for young trick-or-treaters has turned into a frightening time for taxpayers, who critics say seem to be getting a lot more tricks than treats for their money.

For these fall-inspired haunts, federal, state and local governments share this week’s Golden Hammer for collectively lavishing millions of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars bankrolling pumpkin farmers, agritourism efforts, fall festivals and other questionable projects. The Golden Hammer is a mark of distinction awarded weekly to highlight waste, fraud and abuse of tax dollars.

Most of the festivals and events financed by state and local tax dollars this time of year focus on pumpkins, and many of those pumpkins are grown with the assistance of pricey farm subsidies courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

From 1995 to 2012, farm subsidies to American pumpkin growers came to more than $2 million, according to USDA figures compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Up until 2010, federal pumpkin subsidies averaged about $75,000 a year. In 2011 and 2012, the two most recent years for which numbers were available, taxpayer handouts spiked to an average of $420,000 a year.

The $34,500 boost can be attributed to Mother Nature: Heavy rains and flooding destroyed thousands of pumpkins in the Northeast in 2011 and 2012.

West Virginians may be one of happiest states to hear that some pumpkins were salvaged from the storms. The state’s legislators earmarked $13,000 in West Virginia’s budget for this year’s edition of the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival, including a $5,000 payout for advertising from the state tourism commission and another $8,200 subsidy to help cover general expenses.

But that’s not all West Virginia taxpayers dedicate to the changing of the season.

The Burlington Pumpkin Harvest Festival received $4,100 in state lottery money. The state budget awarded $4,125 to the Frankford Autumnfest and $2,200 to Princeton’s Autumnfest. Not to be outdone, the Wetzel County Autumnfest snagged $4,500 in public funds.

More than $6,000 of West Virginians’ dollars funded the Kenova Autumn Festival, $4,300 went to the Rainelle Fall Festival, and the Pratt Fall Festival pocketed $2,000.

In total, Mountain State lawmakers devoted nearly $75,000 to support 21 pumpkin parties and fall festivals. Much of that money came from state lottery funds intended to help the beleaguered state send more of its students to college and draw more businesses and jobs to West Virginia.

Amy Goodwin, West Virginia’s tourism commissioner, strongly defends the grants as money well spent.

“These festivals are unique and embrace the spirit of our communities in the Mountain State,” she said. “They are a smart investment to make. Culture is high on the list of why people visit a place.”

She noted that travel and tourism represent “a $5.1 billion industry that fuels 46,000 jobs” for the state and marketing is essential to the industry’s success. “Without these efforts, we wouldn’t see these numbers.”

Watchdogs, however, say taxpayers should be wary of such claims.

“Sure, a festival might attract tourist dollars to a given area, but if that’s the case, it should not be too difficult to find private money to underwrite the whole activity,” said Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union. “West Virginia should be especially careful in handing out promotional dollars at public expense, given other priorities that might need funding.”

Federal tax dollars also went to West Virginia to fund fall activities. The state Department of Agriculture passed a $5,000 USDA grant to Cole Farms in the town of Jane Lew to “provide a corn maze and pumpkin patch that was marketed to the public.”

Chunkin’ punkins

One thing West Virginians don’t have to celebrate the season — that those in Colorado do — is an organized pumpkin throwing contest, again courtesy of the taxpayer.

This weekend, Punkin Chunkin Colorado will take place in Aurora. At the event, which is underwritten by local tax dollars, teams will compete using huge air cannons and slingshots to determine who can shoot a pumpkin the farthest before it splatters on the ground.

The city is on the hook for the $40,000 required to put on the festival. In a good year, when the weather cooperates, the city makes about three-quarters of its money, leaving taxpayers to pick up a tab of $10,000 or so. In a bad year, taxpayers have to pay thousands more to cover the event’s financial losses.

Gary Wheat, president of Visit Aurora, the city’s tourism organization, also defends the city’s spending on Punkin Chunkin Colorado.

“The event is a great family event this time of year,” said Mr. Wheat, who estimates the attendance will be around 15,000 people. “Punkin Chunkin draws people from across the state, as well as other states like Wyoming and Kansas.”

“The city has been very good stewards of tax dollars,” said Mr. Wheat. “A lot of the money we spend on the event travels back in from tourists.”

But the government’s involvement in Punkin Chunkin Colorado puzzles Jon Caldara, president of the Denver-based Independence Institute.

“In 44 years of living in this state, I’ve never once heard of Punkin Chunkin Colorado,” said the leader of the state’s free market think tank. “But it sounds cool enough that it shouldn’t need to be run by the government. Private organizations should be able to run it much better than the government.

“If you look at Aurora’s city charter, I doubt that a core function of government is to shoot pumpkins thousands of feet through the air. That money, even if it’s just $10,000, could be much better spent on something that actually is a proper function of government.”

Some in Tennessee wouldn’t agree.

Last year, the state’s corn mazes, pumpkin patches, haunted forests and hayrides shared $1.2 million in grant money funded by Tennessee taxpayers for agricultural tourism.

An eastern Tennessee business known as Old McDonald’s Farm collected a $10,500 grant to pay for a wagon and to buy signage promoting the farm’s corn maze. Tennessee taxpayers also paid $15,000 to subsidize a haunted corn maze, a “redneck zombie” paintball attraction and a hayride at the Guthrie Pumpkin Farm and Corn Maze in Riceville, according to records obtained by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

A similar program in Nevada allowed $4,500 in state tax dollars to fund the Lazy P Adventure Farm’s Fall Farm Festival, state tourism documents revealed. The festival at the Winnemucca farm includes two corn mazes, a pumpkin patch, a petting zoo, wagon rides and a hay maze.

Some critics of using tax dollars to subsidize pumpkin patches, festivals and other autumn events in hopes of drawing visitors and new residents is missing the mark.

“The best ‘Welcome’ signs a state can lay out is ‘Land of Lower Taxes,’” Mr. Sepp said. “And that starts with prioritizing expenditures.”

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