WASHINGTON -- There's something wrong with the government subsidizing talking urinal cakes and wineries?
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released his annual Wastebook on Wednesday. Last year, he singled out the IHOP in Columbia Heights as an example of government waste.
This year, D.C.'s eateries escaped attention, but some Virginia and Maryland wineries made the list of projects that Coburn says show the government's misplaced spending priorities:
A Maryland-based manufacturer of talking urinal cakes also got a mention:
The Vineyards at Dodon, in Davidsonville, Maryland, used $299,974 to start a winery to be
run on the owner’s nine-generation-old farm. Likewise, Maryland-based Boordy Vineyards, a 30-year-old company, received $239,200 in federal grants to assist their business.
In Chatham, Virginia, a grant totaling $208,571 was awarded to The Homeplace Vineyards, and in Kennedyville, Maryland, the Crow Vineyard & Winery received $48,600 in federal grant funds.
In an effort to prevent drunk driving, the Michigan State Police used $10,000 in federal funds to purchase 400 talking urinal cakes.
Urinal cakes are typically used only to freshen receptacles. Cleverly named Wizmark, a Maryland-based company invented the Interactive Urinal Communicator, which has a motion-detector. As men approach the urinal, the device plays a recording.
The recording, according to Coburn, features a female voice issuing sound advice: "Listen up. That’s right! I’m talking to you. Had a few drinks? Maybe a few too many? Then do yourself and everyone else a favor. Call a sober friend or a cab. Oh, and don’t forget. Wash your hands.”
Coburn was also unimpressed with the government's decision to spend $14,937 for a Smokey the Bear balloon to fly at the Boy Scouts Jamboree in Fort Lee, Va., but thought more highly of FBI Iraqi police-training classes taught in Quantico, Va., saying they were "some of the only positively reviewed classes" taught as part of a $400.2 million U.S. Iraqi police training program.
Other objectionable government expenditures in the Wastebook include: $947,000 NASA is spending to send six volunteers to Hawaii, where they will test out various space menus while simulating a mission to Mars, and $3,700 for a George Washington-themed children's museum in West Virginia, to create an 18-foot model of a historic downtown street that will be made of 30,000 legos.
And then there's the Wastebook-noted expenditure that's really captured people's attention: The robotic squirrel. It's a taxidermied squirrel that has been outfitted with a motor to make its tail move. The squirrel -- which was paid for with "a portion of a $325,000 National Science Foundation" grant, per the Wastebook -- is designed to study interactions between California ground squirrels and rattlesnakes.
More specifically, according to a March article in Popular Science, the robo-squirrel is designed to find out what squirrel behavior discourages the snake from attacking, and what behavior provokes it.
The scientists think now that vigorous squirrel tail wagging discourages the rattlesnakes from attacking, while a squirrel that creeps and retreats may provoke an attack. (Watch a video of that theory in action here.)
What may also provoke the squirrels to be attacked? Here's what John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, told ABC News about this project's inclusion:
"Every time we do a report, with every recipient will have a rationale, but they rarely provide detail or background material … if the university wants to spend money on students, that's fine. I'm not sure taxpayers would agree that we need to finance robotic squirrels," he said.
Hart added that although the award abstract for the $325,000 to the National Science Foundation did mention funding for students, he called it "throwaway language."
"[The language is] used to rationalize and make politicians feel good about these projects," he said. "Senator Coburn is not against studying the squirrels. But we don't need to borrow money from the future generations and overseas to do so. "