The State of Your Money: Taxpayer Trinkets
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
Indianapolis - While Idaho brags about its potatoes, Indiana can boast about something else: potato chip clips. (You know, those handy plastic clips you rely on to keep a bag of potato chips fresh and crispy long after you've opened the bag!)
State agencies have recently purchased thousands of them - part of a million dollars spent in the past two years on trinkets, doodads, gizmos and gadgets designed to promote state agencies and their messages.
The Indiana Department of Transportation bought 1,500 chip clips to promote its TrafficWise travel web site.
"We may go to a Kiwanis meeting. Everyone who goes to the meeting gets one of these," said INDOT deputy communications director Bruce Childs. "It's a reminder about safety issues."
Indiana State Police purchased 2,500 chip clips to promote its methamphetamine suppression hotline.
"It's an in-your-face kind of message that needs to be in front of you, otherwise you'll forget it," explained ISP Major Carlos Pettiford. "You close that bag of potato chips up with our clip, what do they read about? Meth suppression."
Hoosiers can read about meth suppression on a lot of other things, too.
ISP spent $50,000 on tote bags, cell phone holders, ink pens, window stickers, key chains, scratch pads, car stickers, dog tags, t-shirts and golf ball markers - all inscribed with anti-meth and anti-drug messages - that are distributed to "everyday folks" around the state.
Is it a good use of tax dollars?
"I believe that it is," Pettiford said. "People like free things."
But it's not really free.
The state's promotional purchases come from state and federal tax money, which means you are paying for it.
ADDING IT UP
At 16 cents per pencil and $1.69 for a pen, many of the promotional purchases are relatively inexpensive. But state agencies bought more than 75,000 custom-made pens and pencils last year costing taxpayers about $26,000.
Add that cost to what Indiana spent on inscribed coasters, Frisbees, golf shirts, luggage tags, umbrellas, post-it notes, notebooks, tattoos, lapel pins, golf balls, bandage dispensers, mouse pads, rulers, pill boxes, ponchos and other items, and the total bill for Hoosiers is $1,051,836 for promotional items over the past two years.
"We don't see the need for those types of items," says the state's new superintendent of public instruction. Tony Bennett is not thrilled that the Indiana Department of Education spent more than $20,000 last year on promotional items such as tote bags and pencils given out at educational conferences. He says that's going to change.
"We are examining our contracts so we don't use tax payer money for things, in our opinion, that are not essential," he said.
Other departments say promotional items are essential.
Last year, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security spent $16,000 on items to give away at the Indiana State Fair, including message boards, picture frames, coloring books, bookmarks, backpacks, key tags, can holders and flashlight sticks.
"Every one of them had some kind of safety message," said Pam Bright, IDHS public education and outreach director. "You've got to have something that draws people into your booth. If we can get them over to the booth, they'll talk to us and they get good information they can take home."
What would happen if a state agency showed up to the state fair without thousands of dollars in giveaway items?
"I think it would be just a challenge to get folks in the booth. You'd have to be creative to come up with something else to get them to come," Bright said.
IDHS showed WTHR some examples of its promotional purchases, but would not allow 13 Investigates to see boxes full of promotional items stored a nearby warehouse.
"We think we've given you enough," said department spokesman John Erickson.
Other state departments don't want you to see their promotional items at all - even though you paid for them.
The Indiana Economic Development Corporation spent more than $26,000 last year to buy thousands of promotional items. WTHR repeatedly asked to see those items and to meet with an agency representative to discuss them. IEDC repeatedly declined.
"We're not going to comment on that," said IEDC spokeswoman Blair West. "That's how [IEDC] Secretary [Mitch] Roob would like us to respond."
When asked whether Hoosiers have a right to see how the agency was spending their tax dollars, Blair gave a similar response.
"I'm not going to discuss that with you," she said.
The department did send WTHR a statement which failed to answer a single question posed by 13 Investigates.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources did not want to give any specifics about the $7300 worth of promotional items it purchased in 2008, either. Department spokesman Phil Bloom said the expenditures were intended to "educate, inform and remind others of our programs and projects" but denied WTHR's request to videotape any of the items. "I have other things I need to get done right now," he explained. Asked if WTHR could see the items at another time, Bloom said "I'll get back to you." That was three weeks ago. He didn't.
MONEY WELL SPENT?
Promotional marketers say well-planned promotional campaigns can be wise investments for the state and a powerful way to communicate important messages to Hooisers.
"An embroidered shirt can end up being 1,000 to 2,500 impressions over the life of that shirt. An ink pen is 100 to 200 impressions over the life of that pen," said Robb Fine, CEO of Indianapolis-based Fine Promotions. "It's a very cost-effective way of getting your message out there, and I think there is a lot of money well spent in Indiana."
Dan McQuiston, chairman of Butler University's Department of Marketing and Management, agrees.
"What the state is trying to do is create an awareness for an agency or a message, and if an item can create that awareness, then it's worth it," he said.
The longtime marketing consultant says some of the state's promotional purchases have potential to be very effective. McQuiston gave high marks to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's purchase of pencils made of recycled denim and money, which are intended to teach children about recycling, and to the Indiana Department of Child Services which purchased book bags (each filled with 25 donated books) for children placed in foster care.
"It is a cost of doing business for the state," he said. "Some of the promotional items, when you really look at them, make a lot of sense."
But while all states spend money for promotional items, McQuiston said the money is not always spent well.
For example, he says the Indiana Department of Economic Development's decision to market the state by putting a message on golf balls may be off target.
"A golf ball, you can hit it one time in the rough or in the water, then it's gone," he said.
Several state agencies purchased promotional coffee mugs, and McQuiston says those can be easily ignored. "If it's something you see and use every day, you kind of become de-sensitized to it and there're not going to remember the message," he explained.
And the Butler professor said any message applied to the wrong item simply loses its impact.
"How are you going to associate eating a snack food with calling a meth hotline?" he asked. "That doesn't seem to work."
McQuiston also questioned a costly promotional campaign by Indiana's Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Agency, which spent more than $55,000 for 22,000 pedometers to encourage Hoosiers to be more active. "That's a great way to get people moving and active, but how do pedometers help anybody stop smoking?"
Local marketing professionals say they are happy to help if state agencies need consultation before making their promotional purchases.
"We can work with them to offer advice and to make sure they're getting the best bang for their buck," Fine said.
Tracking that "bang" is something the state rarely does.
According to Indiana State Police, the agency shut down 1,059 meth labs in 2008 and received hundreds of tips. But Pettiford said the department usually does not track where its tips come from and has no evidence to show whether any meth labs have been dismantled as a result of a potato chip clip or backpack displaying information about the state's meth suppression hotline.
Most state agencies do not measure the success or failure of their promotional campaigns to determine if money spent on a specific promotional item truly delivered the state's desired message.
OFF TO THE RACES
While reviewing thousands of promotional purchases made by state agencies, 13 Investigates discovered crayon and lollipop expenses for the Indiana Horse Racing Commission. The commission told WTHR it buys the custom-made crayons and candy to help promote horse racing to kids at fairs and trade shows. Those kids are first asked to watch a videotape of an actual horse race.
"They're picking a winner for the race and then we give them a prize," explained Jessica Barnes, Indiana's Director of Standardbred Racing.
Is that spending state dollars to promote legalized gambling towards kids?
Barnes admits gambling is an integral part of horse racing, but denies any intention to hook kids on gambling.
"That's not what we're doing," she said. "All of horse racing does not have to do with legalized gambling. There's no betting, they're just picking a horse they think is going to win.... This is an industry. We are promoting the Standardbred breed, we are educating people and we are always looking to expand our fan base."
The Indiana Council on Problem Gambling wants the horse racing commission to re-evaluate its promotional program.
"Promoting horse racing to kids makes no sense," said the council's executive director, Jerry Long. "That's fine to do with adults, but it's poor judgment by the horse racing commission to say they're trying to attract the next generation of track-goers. It's just inappropriate for children."
WHOSE MONEY IS IT ANYWAY?
The horse racing commission argues the money it spends on promotional items comes from surplus lottery and gaming revenue - not directly from tax dollars.
ISP says state taxpayers are not financially impacted by the purchase of meth suppression promotional items because those items are funded by a federal grant.
The state's most prominent government watchdog believes the source of the funding makes little difference.
"This money all comes out of the same pocket and that's the taxpayer's," said Julia Vaughn, director of Common Cause Indiana. "Whether it's state or federal, it's all money that came from our pocket at some point. Overall it's a tiny part of the state's budget, but in these economic times there's an extreme need for the state to tighten its belt, and I'd rather not see the state use my money for potato chip clips and getting kids out to the racetrack."
Other agencies pointed out promotional expenditures are commonplace among private companies and said their publicly-funded promotional purchases should not be viewed differently.
For example, a spokeswoman at the Indiana Supreme Court said her agency is following the lead of successful corporations by purchasing promotional items to thank its longtime employees.
Last year, the supreme court's gesture of gratitude included $1,000 worth of engraved marble paperweights.
"Someone who spent 30 years in public service through the supreme court, we're happy to thank them," said court public information officer Kathryn Dolan.
Asked what an employee might do with a paperweight, Dolan took a moment to think.
"I can think of a number of folks who have them on their desk. I don't know what to say about why we chose a paperweight over some other item ... but it's a token of appreciation," she said.
"They're really a thing of the past," McQuiston said, shaking his head. "They're just not very useful and they can be extremely expensive. Nobody uses them so I think I'd rethink that one."
The state supreme court says it is being fiscally responsible and is rethinking some of its promotional purchases for the coming year. It may not give out tote bags at its training seminars.
The Department of Transportation says it will cut back on promotional spending, too.
"We're not buying chip clips anymore," Childs said. "Additional eyes are going to look at everything we do to make sure we are appropriately spending the funds we have in our budget.
It appears all state departments will be subject to extra scrutiny following WTHR's investigation. Just two weeks after 13 Investigates asked to see promotional invoices for dozens of state agencies, the Indiana State Budget Office implemented new restrictions on buying promotional items.
Now, all state promotional purchases must be approved by a special committee established through the governor's office. Since its inception two months ago, the committee has denied about 75% of promotional requests submitted by state agencies. That means thousands of your tax dollars that would have been spent on lapel pins, light bulbs, magnets, balloons, backpacks, highlighters, key chains, pens and motorcycle kick stands won't be spent after all.