published Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Drew Johnson: State fair welfare adds up


by Drew Johnson

This week, the Wyoming State Fair celebrates its 100th anniversary. The fair’s centennial celebration features a swine show, a weight-gaining competition for hogs and even a “pig ‘n’ mud” wrestling championship.

It seems fitting that the fair places so much emphasis on pigs. After all, the state fair is one of the biggest pork projects in Wyoming.

This year, state taxpayers ponied up $1.8 million to subsidize the fair. On top of that, Converse County and the City of Douglas, where the fair is located, chipped in an additional $30,000 in handouts to the fair.

Everyone loves a state fair, so why is Wyoming’s such a drain on taxpayers? The biggest reason seems to be the fair’s location. Douglas is a town of only 6,120 and sits 50 miles from Casper and 125 miles from Cheyenne, the only two cities in the entire state with populations of over 35,000.

As a result, while some state fairs — like Texas, Iowa and Minnesota — see attendance figures of over a million visitors, the Wyoming State Fair struggles to get 50,000 people through the turnstiles.

With an admission price of $1 — down from last year’s $3 entrance fee — the fair just doesn’t make much money. In fact, it’s unlikely that the fair will even generate the $402,500 expected in the state’s measly revenue estimate. That’s bad news for taxpayers since any time the fair plunges further in the red, state taxpayers pay to bail out the failing fair.

To make matters worse, state lawmakers give fair administrators no incentive to break even. According to a 2004 audit of the Wyoming State Fair, “Neither the statutes or the budget laws require the state fair to be self-supporting.” As a result, the Wyoming General Assembly is free to use tax dollars to bail out the state fair year after year. And they do.

Since 2005, state lawmakers have shelled out $12.4 million to underwrite the fair — that amounts to almost $60 in tax money for every family in the state, just to fund the festival.

To put it another way, if attendance figures hold steady this year, taxpayers will spend $38.30 to subsidize every man woman and child who visits the state fair.

Next year, the state fair’s welfare payments will place an even greater burden on taxpayers. State leaders, apparently unwilling to stop throwing good money into bad projects, have upped the amount they plan to spend bailing out the boondoggle to $1.9 million. On top of that, state taxpayers will be forced to fund a $785,000 flooring project in the fair’s Livestock Pavilion and Show Center and pay $250,000 to paint the outside of some buildings around the fairgrounds.

While Wyoming’s state fair earns top honors as the biggest porker, it certainly isn’t the only state subsidizing its state fair with taxpayers’ money.

For years, the Illinois State Fair, which also takes place this week, was America’s most heavily subsidized fair. According to a recent state audit, the fair saddled taxpayers with a staggering $33.9 million in losses between 2001 and 2009. The Rockford Register Star reports that Illinois taxpayers will fund $883,500 more in handouts to the fair this year.

The 2012 editions of the Utah, Indiana and North Dakota state fairs will cost taxpayers $675,200, $600,000 and $365,000.

Fortunately, some states are wising up. In 2009, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, in what may have been the only smart move she made as governor, took the state’s fair off the dole. After being temporarily shuttered, the fair is now back and privately run, saving Michiganders an estimated half-million dollars per year.

Wyoming would be wise to follow Michigan’s lead and stop wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars bailing out the state’s bankrupt fair. Until that happens, the Wyoming State Fair deserves a blue ribbon for government waste.

Follow Drew on Twitter: @Drews_Views

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