Time to Dust Off the Old 'Golden Fleece Award' and Present It to the Washington State Ferries

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The late great Sen. William Proxmire used to famously issue awards to public officials he believed were squandering public money. He called it the Golden Fleece Award. From 1975 until he retired in 1988, the Wisconsin Democrat sent out monthly press releases, each of them identifying, then vilifying the latest waste of government funds and the people behind it.

Proxmire found some doozies. Our two favorites: The National Institute for Mental Health for spending $97,000 to find out what went on inside a Peruvian brothel, and the National Science Foundation for blowing $103,000 to compare the aggressiveness of sun fish that swill tequila as opposed to gin.

If the maverick lawmaker were around today, the Washington State Ferry system surely would have caught his frugal eye as a worthy recipient of the Golden Fleece Award.

Washington is spending many millions more on ferry boats than any other place in the country that relies on this kind of water craft -- and that's because state law mandates that they be built by a Washington company.

So, if the state has to pay $80 million for the 64-car Chetzemoka, compared with $43 million it took to built the similar Island Home, which serves the islands of Martha Vineyard and Nantucket, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

As the Everett Herald reports, a $1.2 million legislative audit that took a year to complete, found that state ferries spent millions of dollars more on its six newest ferries, in part because of a state law that requires the vessels be built by a Washington company, thereby limiting competition and pushing up costs.

Todd Shipyards, now owned by Vigor Industrial, built the past six ferries for the state and is building two more now, the paper reported.

The audit recommends "rewriting the law to allow out-of-state shipyards to at least bid on new vessel construction contracts, if bids from in-state firms are insufficient or higher than expected. They also suggest the agency assert tighter control of the terms and prices in construction contracts in order to save money."

"They cumulatively make some choices that make the ferries more expensive than other places," said Larisa Benson, director of performance audits for the state.

The audit, the Herald reported, scrutinized construction costs of the three newest vessels, the 64-car ferries in the Kwa-di Tabil class, and the three Jumbo Mark II boats built in the 1990s, which carry 202 cars each.

On four of those boats, the auditors found the state spent between $8 million and $42 million more per ferry when compared with comparable vessels, and that's after accounting for design differences.

Enough said on the matter. Clearly, there are more egregious examples of government waste and more deserving candidates for the Golden Fleece. Who can forget, for instance, that infamous $6,000 U.S. Department of Army study on how the government should buy Worcestershire sauce, or the $212,593 the Office of Education threw down a rat hole on "curriculum package" to teach college students how to watch television.

 
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