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MT: Tester an anti-ad spending hawk? Not quite

By   /   September 17, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Tester upheld stimulus road sign funding in a 2009 vote.

By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org

HELENA – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wants his constituents to think he’s the man to cut wasteful government spending on federal agency self-promotion, but his record shows he’s not that guy.

When given a direct opportunity to cut funding for federal self-promotion, Tester balked. His record, too, suggests the first-term Democrat isn’t afraid to support legislation including clear plans for advertising spending.

Yet, voters might not see this side of the senator.

Last week, he pitched legislation to slash federal agency ad budgets by at least 50 percent, a move Tester says could save billions through the next decade.

It’s an odd posture for the Montana lawmaker, who sided with Democrats in 2009 to uphold a most glaring example of government throwing money into the public relations wind: stimulus road signs.

The 2009 stimulus bill contained key provisions allowing state and federal agencies to erect signs near project funded through the act. The signs vary from state to state, but usually described the project and noted that federal dollars funded.

Some signs — but not all — showed exactly how much the federal government spent on nearby projects.

In a fruitless chance at scoring cheap political points, U.S. Senate and House Republicans pushed legislation to strip the sign money from the law in fall 2009.

New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican, offered an anti-stimulus sign amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2010, a hefty spending bill setting 2010 budget for several federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester

Judd pulled no punches when asked his opinion on the signs. He labeled them as “simply for political self-interest,” and suggested jobs might be created with money spent on the signage. According to the senator’s estimates, the government spent between $6 million and $20 million on the signs.

Democrats, who ushered the stimulus bill through the Capitol in January 2009, defeated the Gregg amendment, though by a narrower 52-45 margin than observers might have expected.

Five Democrats, notably including New York Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, crossed the aisle, siding with Republicans on the measure.

Tester and Montana’s senior senator, Democrat Max Baucus, supported continued funding for the roadside signs.

Perhaps Tester’s defense is the inconsequentiality of the sign spending cuts. The stimulus bill, after all, cost taxpayers an enormous $787 billion and the signs represented a tiny fraction of the overall price tag.

Tester did not return emails requesting comment.

Former New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg

Using Gregg’s high-water mark for sign-spending, the $20 million he said the feds spent on stimulus propaganda represented just .002 percent of the act’s total cost. At the $6 million figure, it’s .0007 percent.

Minuscule spending cuts might not be the issue for Tester, though.

In last week’s news release, Tester complained about the $1 billion in government ad spending in the fiscal year 2010 federal budget. That year, the government spent $3.45 trillion, meaning that ad spending comprised .02 percent of all federal spending.

Had Tester successfully pitched his legislation in 2010, ad spending would have dropped by $500 million, or to about .014 percent of federal outlays for the year.

Another vote in the Tester’s record reveals he’s not shy about spending taxpayers’ funds on the government “self-promotion” he now disparages.

Section 4004 of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise dubbed the national health reform law, contained specific language requiring that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services engage in “outreach” activities surrounding the act.

Tester was one of the 60 senators who supported the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. Senate.

On April 30, HHS awarded Porter Novelli Public Services, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm, a $17.5 million outreach contract. The firm will execute “a national, integrated multi-media education campaign that promotes the preventive health care benefits available to all Americans as a result of the Affordable Care Act,” the contract award document explains.

Almost immediately after the health care law’s passage, HHS spent more than $700,000 airing  television commercials featuring former Mayberry and Matlock man Andy Griffith promoting the measure.

Additionally, U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., complained earlier this year that HHS spent more than $1 million sending postcards to certain small businesses explaining their eligibility for federal tax credits under the law.

Andy Griffith, right, appeared in a pro-PPACA commercial in 2010.

State governments join the propaganda action, too.

California, using federal funds provided through the ACA, will begin spending on advertising within the next year and is eyeing a reality show promoting participation in the law’s exchanges, or online marketplaces for state residents to purchase health coverage.

California awarded Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, a New York-based firm, a $900,000 promotions, outreach and advertising contract using federal cash. According to NewsBusters, Ogilvy plans to use Hollywood and top American TV shows to spread the pro-health reform message.

Of course, maybe Tester took the good with the bad: He recognized the bill’s upside and subsequently ignored the section requiring public relations spending.

Perhaps he also recognized the insignificance of the ad spending: The approximately $20 million HHS has dedicated to public relations spending under the PPACA represents just .0016 percent of the law’s total cost.

Tester’s ad-cutting bill awaits hearing in the  Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Contact Dustin Hurst via email at [email protected] You might also catch him on Twitter using the @DustinHurst handle.