Through an open records request, KCTV5 News discovered the state of Missouri spent more than $2.3 million in one year on promotional items, prizes and awards.
It's not unusual to see a pen, magnet or key chain with a company's advertisement on it. But it's not just private businesses handing out this promotional trinkets and doo-dads.
KCTV5 discovered millions of Missouri tax dollars have been spent on thousands of promotional items including jar openers, magnifying glasses, tape measures, rulers, pencils and pens, pads of paper, chip clips, lapel pins, ice scrapers and toothpick holders.
When you add in prizes and awards, Missouri spent more than $2.3 million from April 2012 to May 2013. KCTV5 showed the findings to state Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Republican who represents the southwest portion of Clay County.
"It's pretty eye opening," Silvey said.
Silvey also sits on the Senate appropriations committee that determines funding for all state departments.
"I understand to some extent to have some promotional items, but I'm not really sure why we have a squishy MoDOT (Missouri Department of Transportation) helmet," Silvey said. "Who are you promoting that to?"
KCTV5 showed Silvey a table full of other items, all picked up by members of the station's investigative unit at a state employee recognition day in Jefferson City. During the event, several departments and agencies handed out the taxpayer-purchased trinkets to hundreds of state workers. That did not sit well with Silvey.
"Obviously you don't need to promote the state and the agency you work for to the people who work in the agency," he said. "That seems a little wasteful."
An "AgriMissouri" rubber jar opener was among the items picked up by KCTV5 in Jefferson City. It's one of the ways the Department of Agriculture promotes Missouri-grown and Missouri-made items.
According to department spokeswoman Christine Tew, "Facilitating promotional efforts to advance Missouri agriculture is key to fulfilling that mission."
Megan Neher owns a Kansas City boutique public relations firm. She considers these giveaway items a waste if they are not part of a bigger marketing plan.
"It has to be careful and good use of the money that is part of a campaign that is strategic," Neher said. "The silly thing that has a logo on it that you squeeze: That's old school."
Not all of what Missouri spends on promotion leaves government offices. Some items are handed out to workers in the forms of awards and prizes.
MoDOT's You Tube channel includes a video on the cash prizes, electronics and motorcycle being offered to employees as part of that agency's promotional budget. In the video clip, a representative from Safety Jackpot, the private company that runs the incentive program explains how it works.
"In order to win the $10,000 both of those $10,000 bags have to be picked," David Welch said. "It happened four times last year."
KCTV5 asked MoDOT to explain the employee safety incentive program.
"Safety is our highest priority," MoDOT spokesman Bob Brendel said. "Working on our state's roadways is dangerous business. Working to ensure their safety is paramount to our business."
Dr. Matthew Beverlin is a political science professor at Rockhurst University.
"State revenue streams have dried up, so I think expenses like this should be scrutinized," Beverlin said.
Not all the records turned over to KCTV5 were complete. Several lines meant to explain the spending were instead left blank in the state's accounting system. Investigative reporter Eric Chaloux asked Beverlin about the blank lines.
"Is that concerning?" asked Chaloux.
"It is to me. You want to know what it's spent on," Beverlin said.
KCTV5 randomly selected one of those empty lines, and then contacted the appropriate agency to find out exactly how the money was spent.
The Missouri Department of Conservation revealed that a charge of $1985.10 was used to purchase 38 framed prints of elk through Missouri Vocational Enterprises.
"The framed elk prints were given by MDC in appreciation to MDC staff and elk-restoration partners that contributed significantly to the Missouri elk restoration project over the past several years," spokesman Joe Jerek explained.
Ten years ago, then-Missouri Auditor Claire McCaskill criticized the state's spending on promotional supplies. While the total amount has dropped around $194,000 since then, many of the items she called wasteful are still being purchased. You can read McCaskill's audit here.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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