Some people look at a key chain and see a cute memento. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin sees useless government waste.
Facing a roughly $200 million budget hole in the current year and an expected $400 million deficit next year, Fallin issued a slew of executive orders last week in an effort to cut spending. Amid those orders was a directive that bans spending on promotional items such as key chains, stress balls and T-shirts, often called "swag." The governor's office estimates state agencies spend up to $58 million annually on such items.
Fallin's order came after the state legislature failed to resolve its budget deficit during its first special session, in part because some lawmakers maintained the state should curb wasteful spending before raising taxes. A bipartisan bill to address Oklahoma’s repeated budgetary shortfalls and fund a teacher pay raise failed twice in the House.
“While I have always and will continue to support eliminating waste and inefficiency in state government, I strongly believe that we need to continue these efforts while solving Oklahoma’s structural budget problem and fund a teacher pay raise,” Fallin said after the House failed to pass the budget bill.
Although it’s a relatively obscure and sometimes small part of agency budgets, swag spending tends to get targeted in times of fiscal crisis.
In 2011, for instance, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered agencies to immediately stop spending taxpayer dollars on free giveaway and gift items as California was dealing with a $25 billion dollar budget deficit. The ban was issued amid other executive orders to freeze hiring across state government and reduce the state’s passenger vehicle fleet by half -- all in an effort to cut $363 million in operational costs.
Later that same year, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling on agencies to limit spending on extraneous promotional items. The order was part of the president's Campaign to Cut Waste.
In Oklahoma, several bills in recent years that would ban or limit swag spending have failed.
Government spending accountability organizations generally applaud these measures, noting that promotional and logo gear is only one category of wasteful government spending. “Unnecessary printing costs, duplicate services -- there’s a lot of fat that can be trimmed,” says Michelle Surka, a tax and budget expert with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “Oklahoma making an attempt to do that is something that should be happening even outside of a budget crisis."
Swag and other extraneous spending can be embarrassing when exposed. An Associated Press investigation recently revealed Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel has spent about $83,000 on promotional items since he took office. The invoices included $10,000 for coins emblazoned with Schimel's "kicking ass every day" mantra, nearly $3,200 on candy and $100 on fortune cookies containing custom messages.
Still, it’s tough to gauge exactly how much trimming swag can directly help in a budget crisis. The available tallies of such spending vary widely. In California, Brown's 2011 executive order found that state agencies and departments spent $7.5 million over three years. In Oklahoma, a recent state Senate bill banning swag spending estimated it could save the state $30 million in a single year. (Fallin’s office says her $58 million annual savings estimate was developed by the governor’s legal division.)
But not everybody is on board with the ban.
Oklahoma State Sen. Kate Floyd notes that some items can double efforts to spread vital information. Stress balls, for example, are often given to health-care clients and military veterans. “If that ball has a suicide or drug hotline number or something on that they may need -- and may need quickly -- then you want them to have access to it,” she says. “We need to understand sometimes there’s more beneath the surface.”
Fallin’s order does allow for exemptions, but it’s unclear what items may receive one.