Thanks a lot, Oscar


So much for that idea.

In my Dec. 26 column -- considering the date, I understand if you missed it -- I urged Nevada's congressional delegation to grab as big a piece of President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus pie as it can. I mentioned a few big highway projects that could be funded to create good jobs and improve the state's transportation network.

I still think this is a great idea. After all, Nevada has been hit as hard as anybody by the recession, and historically we have not received our fair share of federal funding. But in light of this week's events, I'm worried about our prospects.

Reviving a hotly debated issue from the presidential campaign, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the stimulus package should avoid funding earmarks -- pet projects that benefit a particular congressman or senator's district.

"We would like, on the spending side, obviously, to avoid funding things like a mob museum or water slides," McConnell said.

Ah, a mob museum. Clearly and cleverly, McConnell was referring to the so-called mob museum being developed in downtown Las Vegas. This project just so happens to fall within the state represented by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Where did McConnell get the idea that a mob museum might crop up among the projects funded by the stimulus plan? Not surprisingly, from the loose lips of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.

In mid-December, Goodman told the Review-Journal he planned to talk with Reid about seeking stimulus funds for three projects: the mob museum, the Smith Performing Arts Center and a new city hall.

"If we could get some help along those lines, that would be what the stimulus bill was really talking about," Goodman said.

When Goodman's comments reached the Drudge Report Web site, it was only a matter of time before they were transformed into weapons of conservative attack. A mob museum sounds a whole lot like a "bridge to nowhere" in the language of partisan politics.

As a result, I fear the Nevada congressional delegation will now have a tougher time securing stimulus funding. Every project that Reid and company propose will be scrutinized and questioned with microscopic intensity to make sure it doesn't look, act or smell like an earmark.

I actually have high hopes for the mob museum, which will be housed in the historic federal building on Stewart Avenue, but it's radioactive as far as the stimulus plan is concerned. McConnell and conservative pundits made sure of that. Even Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., has chimed in against it.

Goodman's other preferred projects -- the performing arts center and city hall -- are less likely to generate such rabid opposition, but they still seem like long shots.

Unfortunately, politicians and citizens alike seem to have a fairly narrow view of what the stimulus funding should be spent on. Time and again, you hear "roads and bridges," as if those are the only acceptable means of creating jobs and pulling the nation out of recession.

The truth is, not everybody who needs a job has the skills or the physical ability to build a highway or bridge. Most laid-off newspaper reporters, for example, are not well-suited to bridge construction. For the stimulus package to make any sense, a wider range of projects must be considered.

For example, helping get the Smith Performing Arts Center built would create an array of good jobs in construction and ultimately in the arts.

But the mob museum just isn't going to make the cut. It's too controversial. Some people don't think it's such a hot idea to create a museum focused on the exploits of killers and thieves. The museum's designers -- who also created the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. -- are quick to point out that law enforcement efforts to crack down on organized crime will be an equal part of the presentation.

Goodman isn't pushing that point too hard, though. He believes the mob theme will be a winner at the ticket counter.

"I don't care whether it is or it isn't [popular]," he told the Guardian newspaper in London. "I care that there are people going in there and spending a lot of money and the city of Las Vegas is getting the fees and the concession money and making a fortune. It's going to be phenomenal. It's going to bring hundreds of thousands of people into our downtown."

Maybe. I hope Goodman's right about that. But getting the museum up and running is almost certainly going to be a local project.

And injecting the notion of stimulus funding for the mob museum was a political miscue that could cost the state at a time when we're in dire need of a helping hand.

Some Republicans in Congress are poised to make it difficult for Obama to get his much-needed stimulus plan approved quickly. Bipartisanship is an attractive sound bite, but unfortunately it is rarely practiced. We can't give McConnell any more ammunition to torpedo the stimulus plan. So, Mr. Mayor, please zip it about the mob museum for a while.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. His column appears Friday.

 

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