Artful stimulus spending? Critics say waste of taxpayer dollars

Artful stimulus spending? Critics say waste of taxpayer dollars »Play Video
White Bird co-founder, Paul King, points to the many promotional posters that line the wall of the Portland nonprofit. Stimulus money saved the graphics and marketing person who designed the posters.

PORTLAND, Ore. - Remember President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus plan that sent hundreds of billions of dollars to the states?

A decent chunk of that money went to arts organizations, including hundreds of thousands of dollars right here in Oregon.

Portland nonprofit White Bird brings dance to Portland from all over the world, said White Bird co-founder Paul King.

The national recession in 2008 hit White Bird hard. Co-founders Walter Jaffe and King said donations were down and they were looking at making cuts, including the graphics and marketing person who designed promotional signs.

In 2009 the federal government passed a stimulus bill that sent over $800 billion to the states to keep the economy going.

The stimulus was for modernizing health care, upgrading schools and labs, encouraging renewable energy and broadband Internet, and for repairing infrastructure and roads.

White Bird received a $50,000 grant.

Every dollar was going to be accounted for, so the feds set up a webpage called recovery.gov. A map shows every project that received federal money. Over $3 billion went to Oregon.

A grant White Bird received saved the marketing job.

But Jason Williams, from Oregon Taxpayers Association, said the grant was a waste of tax dollars. He thinks the money should have only been spent on road projects.

“Building bridges and building more freeways – where everyone can use them,” he said.

Williams said the stimulus was chock-full of wasteful spending.

Organizations in Oregon that also received stimulus money include:
-- Southern Oregon Film Society - $29,000
-- Corvallis Arts Center - $26,000
-- Neskowin Coast Foundation - $30,000

Portland Center Stage received $50,000. They told KATU the money was used to avoid a “painful cut in artistic operations.”

In all, the National Endowment for the arts doled out about $50 million nationwide. About $724,000 ended up in Oregon alone.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said last week he couldn’t speak to specific projects but pinned the responsibility on what he called the “Bush Recession.”

“That collapse – we were seeing 1 percent a month increase in unemployment. Absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “The drop in purchasing power was four times as high as the stimulus. The stimulus was only going to be able to have a modest impact in helping us bridge and start a recovery.”

KATU reached out to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, to ask him about the stimulus money, but his staff didn’t return a phone call.

As for the White Bird co-founders, they believe their grant stimulated the community beyond the job it helped to save.

“The people in Portland wouldn’t want to lose an organization like White Bird, and we were at a very critical time then,” said King. “We went through all the proper channels to apply for this money, and it was vetted; and there was a panel, and it really made a huge difference.”

It’s been five years since the stimulus was passed. Did it do what it was supposed to do? Are the arts as vital as roads or schools? You decide. Because you paid for it.