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N.C.'s teapot museum becomes political fodder in Iowa

The much-maligned Sparta Teapot Museum -- a symbol of congressional earmark spending -- is once again in the news.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry released a Web ad (above) earlier this week criticizing rival Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator, as a "porker's best friend" for voting for "a teapot museum in North Carolina."

It's not the first time the Teapot Museum earned scorn. The 2005 federal budget appropriated about $500,000 for construction costs with Republicans Richard Burr and Virginia Foxx pushing for the money. The museum never received the federal money. State lawmakers also approved a $400,000 grant for the museum's construction but the unspent money was returned in 2009. The project landed on a Citizens Against Government Waste report as a top pork project in 2006.

Perry is aiming to weaken Santorum's conservative credentials as they fight for voters in Iowa. The museum closed a year ago amid the economic downturn.

The process, not the end result

David Williams worries about even the mundane earmarks.

As noted previously, many of the earmark requests from North Carolina's Congressional delegation favor such workaday projects as fixing bridges, dredging harbors, and testing local water systems.

Those don't attract the same attention as a teapot museum, but the vice president of Citizens Against Government Waste said they're just as problematic.

"A lot of these projects are very mundane, where people might go, 'That actually looks like it might work,'" he said. "But the money isn't going to where it's most needed in the country, it's going to the places with the most influential members of Congress."

As an example, he said that many local towns need help with a new water system. But since earmarks are determined by clout, the towns that are actually the neediest may not be the ones to get funding.

Williams said it is the process of earmarking, not the end results, that matters. 

Harrell eyeing Commerce Dept. job

Rep. Jim Harrell lost his bid for re-election but may keep a Raleigh work address. He's in the mix for an assistant secretary's post at the Department of Commerce.

Harrell, a Surry County Democrat, said the transition team for Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue has not interviewed him, but he sidestepped whether he was making a pitch for the job.

"I'm always looking for a way to help North Carolina's economic development," said Harrell, a three-term lawmaker who was defeated by Republican Sarah Stevens in the swing district.

As a legislator he helped push legislation creating incentives for movie production in the state and another bill that updated other tax incentives for new businesses.

Harrell was touted as a likely candidate for lieutenant governor three years ago, but his role as a loyal ally to then-House Speaker Jim Black likely fouled that up. A federal grand jury called Harrell as a witness during the investigation that led to Black's plea and imprisonment on curruption charges.

Harrell also received widespread snickering over his support for the efforts to create the Sparta Teapot Museum in his district. Black earmarked $400,000 in state money for the project, which would house a famous collection from a California benefactor. U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole and U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, all Republicans, secured $500,000 in federal funds for the museum.

Plans have since been scaled back and shifted away from housing the entire teapot collection.

Claims Dept: Pittenger tackles pork

Robert Pittenger, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, has a new TV ad about pork projects in North Carolina, reports David Ingram.

What the ad says: Announcer: ‘The politicians in Raleigh are pigging out, and we’re paying for it. They spent over $200,000 to dig up an old pirate ship. $400,000 on a teapot museum. Half a million on the Randy Parton theater. But one conservative leader said no: Robert Pittenger.’

Pittenger: ‘I’m Robert Pittenger. I opposed wasteful spending in Raleigh, even when it wasn’t popular. That’s exactly what I’ll do as your lieutenant governor.’

Announcer: ‘For lieutenant governor, the conservative is Robert Pittenger.’

The background: The pirate ship was the Queen Anne’s Revenge, once belonging to Blackbeard and now on the National Register of Historic Places. The proposed Sparta teapot museum was to hold the collection of a wealthy Los Angeles lawyer but has since been scaled back. And the theater in Roanoke Rapids has been a money-losing attempt to draw tourism.

Pittenger opposed the projects, along with at least 14 other senators, out of 50 total.

Pittenger, first elected to the state Senate in 2002, has been an outspoken opponent of ‘pork projects,’ and his opposition was not always popular. Many of the projects moved forward despite his opposition.

It should be noted that the office of lieutenant governor has few powers beyond presiding over daily sessions of the state Senate. The lieutenant governor does not vote on legislation, except in cases of a tie vote, and would have limited powers to change how state money is spent.

Is the ad accurate? The ad’s account of the projects and the amounts the state contributed are all accurate. Whether they are worthy of public money is up to the viewer.

Gearino on Teapot Museum

Dan Gearino says the Sparta Teapot Museum is like a speeder.

In a post on his Words Assembled Well blog, the Raleigh writer says that the museum may have been unfairly picked out by "pork-barrel watchdogs in the media."

Once that happened, the museum became a combination of punching bag and punchline. Every story or broadcast either used the museum as an example of government waste, or made a joke about teapots. Usually both.

Still, he said that he doesn't think Sparta got "a raw deal." Yes, the state and federal grants are a "pittance," compared to other pork or the federal defense budget, he notes.

But, like a singled-out speeder, Sparta is "just the one that got caught."

Tuesday quick hits

* Gov. Mike Easley makes a walnut table on an episode of "The Woodwright's Shop" on UNC-TV with host Roy Underhill; no air date set yet. (Char-O)

* Service Employees International Union decides not to endorse anyone, a huge blow for John Edwards, but says local chapters may do so. (NYT)

* Organizers say the Sparta Teapot Museum cut back on plans after criticism of a $400,000 state grant and lobbying for federal money as "pork." (Char-O)

* Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, whose sole vote in seven years created the state lottery, says she's not troubled how it turned out. "I've never regretted it at all." (Capital Beat)

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