SI Vault
Follow the Money
Donald L. Barlett
December 10, 2001
You would think that documenting the spending of federal tax dollars in support of the Salt Lake Olympics would be as easy as adding up your paycheck stubs to calculate your annual income. But you would be wrong.
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December 10, 2001

Follow The Money

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You would think that documenting the spending of federal tax dollars in support of the Salt Lake Olympics would be as easy as adding up your paycheck stubs to calculate your annual income. But you would be wrong.

Governments at the federal, state and local levels have different accounting systems. No federal agency or official is responsible for monitoring the Olympic-related spending in Washington, and few people in either the nation's capital or Salt Lake City can even agree on how to define such spending. SI arrived at its $1.5 billion estimate by analyzing figures from Congress's General Accounting Office (GAO), the White House's Office of Management and Budget, various federal and Utah state agencies, the Utah Olympic Officer (the state's liaison with Games organizers) and other sources. SI's total includes all the federal dollars scored by Salt Lake Olympic boosters and Utah politicians for projects that the boosters and politicians themselves described as crucial to the Games.

SLOC president Mitt Romney (above) strongly disputes SI's estimate. "That's way wrong," he says of the $1.5 billion figure. "You're completely off.... Your article is striking me as an entirely bogus piece. Why do you want to do that?"

Romney believes that only the federal dollars going directly to support the Games, for things like security and temporary parking lots, should be counted, and he puts that sum at $350 million. "If someone wants to count the completion of a highway project in Utah as an Olympic project—which, by the way, was not requested by the Olympics, isn't needed by the Olympics, has nothing to do with the Olympics ... if you call that an Olympic project, well, yeah, you can get federal dollars to be huge," Romney says. "It's kind of hard to call [highway construction] an Olympic project."

To the contrary—it's quite easy, as Utah's leaders have proved. Every member of the state's congressional delegation, mayors and public officials from across Utah, and Salt Lake Games boosters (including SLOC trustees) wrapped themselves in the Olympic flag when pleading for federal funds for highway, public transit and other projects. They did so time after time. As Tom Dolan, mayor of Sandy City, Utah, testified to a House subcommittee in March 1997, when asking for funds to help pay for highway work: "Every person attending the 2002 Olympics in any capacity must travel on either Interstate 15 or Interstate 80 at some point. The primary importance of these two inter-states to the smooth operation and security of the Olympics has been emphasized already."

That Utah officials used the Games to extract transportation dollars from Washington was widely reported in the state. As the Deseret News noted on March 9, 1997, "Olympic organizers said there's nothing wrong with telling Congress that every project on Utah's $4.3 billion list [of requested funding for all kinds of projects] is needed for the Winter Games, even though their own must-do projects on that list only total $55 million."

To get an idea of how difficult it can be to determine the amount of money being spent, consider the federal cost of building temporary parking lots for the Olympics. The GAO included the lots in a $77 million estimate for "spectator transportation" for the Games without specifying how much was allocated for the lots. Utah's Olympic Officer says the U.S. government contributed $31 million for the lots. The Utah Department of Transportation, which is building them, puts the federal share at $23 million—for now. A spokesperson for the department cautions, "Obviously, we won't have final costs until all park-and-ride/walk lots are 100 percent completed and/or restored."

Translation: Although the cost will be more, exactly how much more remains unknown.

Utah senator Robert Bennett, apparently seeking to head off criticism of his state's spending of federal dollars on the Games, in August asked the GAO—which in September 2000 estimated Games-related federal spending at $1.3 billion—to prepare a new audit of expenditures on Salt Lake and past U.S.-hosted Olympics. The audit, which was released by Bennett's office last week, put the amount of federal aid at $342 million, but it included only direct outlays for the Games and thus excluded much of the federal money secured in the name of the Olympics.

Bennett's press secretary, Mary Jane Collipriest, in disputing SI's numbers, said the first GAO report contained "errors" and the new audit gives a more accurate picture. Bennett issued a statement saying, "As I've continually said, the 2002 Games are America's Games, not just Salt Lake City's, and the participation of the U.S. government is not only an appropriate responsibility, but a privilege."