As soon as I begin to believe I’ve seen or heard just about everything I’m proven wrong again. A recent Oregonian carried the announcement that the Grand Coulee Dam was updating its laser light show for a US $1.6 million dollars. The 36 minute show is projected against the water as it rushes across the face of the dam. An estimated 75,000 people enjoy the free show which runs from Memorial Day to late September. A million-six is not much in the arena of debt, deficit, taxes, and spending, but is this a frugal use of money?
Begun in 1989, the show has run every summer since. According to Lynn Brougher, a public affairs person at the dam, one government technician spends about a quarter of their time working on the laser show and a contractor runs the show for US $12 thousand a summer. Ms. Brougher estimates about a quarter of the 300,000 visitors to the visitor center each year watch the show. She notes the funding for the update was provided by Bonneville Power Administration, part of the US Department of Energy. Grand Coulee Dam is run by the Bureau of Reclamation, part of the US Department of Interior.
From the Bureau of Reclamation press release of July 26, 2012:
“The laser light show is a popular way to tell the story of Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project,” Reclamation Commissioner Michael L. Conner said. “We want to continue to share the rich culture and history of the area with the thousands of people who visit Grand Coulee Dam each year. The new laser light show will be a dynamic and energy efficient way to engage visitors and infuse tourism dollars into the local community.”
When the show began in 1989 the US was in the seventh consecutive year of economic expansion and except for the failing of the Savings and Loans, the economy was doing pretty well. The President’s budget for fiscal year 1989 had a deficit of a mere US $130 billion dollars! The US was at peace. There were about 19 million people receiving food stamps at an average of US $51.71 a month. Funding a laser light show in 1989 likely did not raise any eyebrows.
However, time passes and priorities and economies change. This update is an inappropriate expense especially at a time when our congressional leadership is falling over each other to cut SNAP funding (Food Stamps). Spending money on a laser light show is on par with the US $147 million we send to Brazil annually to keep Brazilian cotton farmers from complaining to the World Trade Organization about the subsidies we pay to US cotton farmers. (See Food Stamps, Cotton, and Brazil).
Last year, the rolls of SNAP (Food Stamps) reached a record – over 44 million people were eligible for assistance. Both the US Senate and House of Representatives are proposing a reduction in SNAP funding of between 28 and 35 billion US dollars in their iterations of the pending farm bill. Somewhere between 17 and 21 million people will lose eligibility for SNAP because of those reductions.
One million six hundred thousand dollars would provide SNAP eligibility for 996 people. Spending any amount to upgrade a free laser light show is inappropriate and wasteful. Someone just doesn’t get it – the US is broke and her poor are hungry. Charge admission, have the surrounding cities (Coulee Dam, Mason City, Grand Coulee, and Electric City) pay for upgrading the laser light show – they certainly reap the benefit of all the visitors. Or just end the show. The estimated 300,000 visitors to the dam each will endure their disappointment much easier than the 996 people who could have received food stamps.
You can watch a YouTube presentation of the current laser show at Grand Coulee here.
Next: Bonneville Power Administration