Earmark critics are up in arms over tattoo removal funds

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 10, 2009 

WASHINGTON — You're talking big money to get rid of a tattoo.

According to experts, the average cost is $50 per square inch per treatment. Tattoos can be large, and it might take five to eight laser treatments to remove a black and white tattoo; color tattoos may require up to 12 treatments. Also, a lot of people who want to get rid of their tattoos might have several of them.

So if you're a defender of tattoo removal, you might say it's a good thing that the $410 billion spending bill that Congress is sending to President Barack Obama includes $200,000 for a small California program that helps people get their unstained skin back.

If you're an opponent, you might say it's a big waste of money.

"I would think under a personal responsibility platform, if you were responsible for getting a tattoo put on you, you might ought to be responsible for getting it taken off, and I do not think our grandchildren ought to be paying for it," Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn said.

Despite pledges to change their ways, members of Congress are beginning their new session in much the same way they closed their last: fighting over pet projects. They're arguing over earmarks once again, those special projects that usually benefit only one state or congressional district.

This year's twist, a fight over a tattoo-removal program that operates in a small clinic in North Hollywood, Calif., is prompted by California Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, the chief sponsor of the earmark. He said that the program, which is run by the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, wasn't pork.

"It's priceless," Berman said.

Since a nun opened the clinic in 1998, the program has helped nearly 12,000 clients remove their tattoos. Physicians donate their time every Saturday, the only day of the week that the clinic is open. Most of the program's funding comes from grants.

Dimitrios Alexiou, who ran the program for more than five years and now volunteers at the clinic, said the average age of clients was 30 and that most of them were in the job market and needed help getting their skin cleaned up.

"They're caught between a rock and hard place," he said. "They want to be able to get jobs but they can't afford to remove it, and they won't get hired with the tattoos."

Berman said the money from Congress would help buy a new laser-removal machine, which would cost more than $100,000. He said that nearly 90 percent of the clients whom the program served were former gang members who were required to log 48 hours of community service to earn three free treatments.

For Coburn, Congress' self-proclaimed earmark hawk, the money for the tattoo removal program is just the latest sign of a free-spending Congress that's piling up debt on future generations. The new spending bill comes on the heels of a $787 billion economic-stimulus plan that Congress approved just last month.

Coburn offered a long list of questionable items that will be funded under the new bill: $1.9 million for the Pleasure Beach water taxi service in Connecticut, $300,000 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia and $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society of Honolulu, which runs sea voyages in ancient-style sailing canoes.

However, he called the tattoo removal program "my favorite." He said the bill contained at least $50 billion in waste, and he noted that the federal government is flat broke and can't afford the pet projects.

"Is now the time we should be doing it, knowing we are borrowing the money?" he asked in a speech on the Senate floor. "Remember, for every $1 million we borrow, we are going to pay back $3 million."

On any given Saturday, an average of 27 people receive treatments at the clinic, Alexiou said. He said that the money would benefit states other than California, noting that many of its tattoo-free clients end up getting jobs outside the state.

He said the new money also would help the program expand its outreach, with staff members going to schools and community events to warn youths of the medical danger and stigma that could result from getting tattoos.

"We try to prevent future tattoos," Alexiou said. "Many of the youth don't think five years from now. They're thinking five minutes from now."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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