Debbie Dujanovic reporting
Produced by Kelly JustSALT LAKE CITY -- KSL 5 News investigates how the state's been spending some of your hard-earned tax dollars. We are talking about a fraction of Utah's multi-billion dollar budget. But in a time where every penny counts, we thought you should know what you've been buying.
We are blowing the whistle on whistles, playing cards, flashlights and other trifles purchased by the state of Utah. When we spotted a couple of these items floating around our newsroom, we decided to find out why the state buys them and how much it is spending on this stuff.
There is lip balm, bookmarks, T-shirts, stickers, magnets, eyeglass holders, flashlights, crayons, mouse pads and glow sticks. These are just a few of the items the state buys to give away. We carried some of those trinkets around in, what else, a free tote bag paid for by the state. Taxpayers were surprised to hear how much Utah has been spending on this stuff.
We let one man know, "Almost $6,000 spent on cigarette death playing cards." Others reacted strongly to the Post-it notes that cost $10,562.00.
"Wow. That's a lot for just an itty-bitty piece of paper," said one woman.
Another $31,115.00 was spent on pins, wristbands, water drops, key chains and whistles.
One man told us, "I wouldn't want these at all, even if they are free."
And what about the stress balls shaped like brains? The state paid $35,790.00 for what it calls "squishy brains."
"Money well spent?" we asked.
"I think that's absurd myself," responded one fellow.
We asked 18 different state agencies for an accounting of the items they buy just to give away. As the freebies started to add up, so did the total. In two years, the state spent at least $482,375.66. That's nearly half a million bucks.
We showed the collection of toys and giveaways to the head of Utah's Disabled Rights Action Committee, a watchdog group that keeps tabs on state spending.
"It's appalling," said Barbara Toomer.
It's not the "I Voted" stickers the state hands out on Election Day or the money spent on freebies to attract tourists that Toomer minds. But she is bugged by everything else we showed her.
"It just seems to me that this is a waste of money, and it could be going to a better use, a much better use," said Toomer.
The State agencies disagree. They say they spend money on freebies to promote important educational campaigns. For example, the Utah Department of Health gives away decks of Death Cigarette playing cards to teach children the dangers of smoking.
Spokesman Tom Hudachko said, "We certainly believe having information in people's hands so they can constantly be referring to it, looking at it, is a good use of some of our resources."
The Utah Department of Natural Resources spent $63,570 on knickknacks to promote Utah parks, water safety and fire prevention. Public information officer Tammy Kikuchi told us, "Kids love little items, and they take them home and play with them and use them. And hopefully it's enforcing a message in their minds."
Kikuchi also pointed out that taxpayer money funds only 30 percent of DNR's doodads. The rest is paid for with park fees, fishing licenses and permits.
The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spent the most money on this promotional stuff: $191,422.00 for the "Parents Empowered" campaign. The items include Post-it notes, mirror clings, dentist bibs and those squishy brains -- all warning about underage drinking.
"If it's a talking point for their parents to say, ‘Hey we don't want you to be drinking,' yeah, it can be effective," said DABC's Doug Murikami.
The state agencies say their marketing experts have told them these promotional items are a legitimate way to send a message. They also say they have cut back on this stuff with the recession.
Barbara Toomer has a suggestion for the state: Stop buying dental bibs and start paying for the dental care of Utah's Medicaid patients. Their coverage was cut just last week.
You can read a detailed list of some of the state freebies by clicking here.