A black hole for taxpayer money

Another month, and Congress is pouring more money into the extravagant marble-lined Taj Mahal officially called the Capitol Visitor Center. The much-delayed three-story project is buried from public view under five acres of the Capitol’s east front.

Original 2001 cost estimate: $265 million.

“Official” cost estimate in February 2005: $455 million.

Latest price tag: $584 million.

Original opening date: December 2005. Latest projected opening date: August 2007 _ but don’t bet on it.

The hefty costs of the war on terror are taking a toll on the U.S. Navy, which has been relegated largely to a supporting role for the Army and Marines fighting land battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the Reagan administration, the Navy was built up to almost 600 ships. Today, it’s been cut down to 280 ships. Some lawmakers say that the reduction in Navy shipbuilding is unwise, given uncertainties about China’s rising naval ambitions.

Unanticipated fallout from those “Megan laws” publicly identifying sex offenders: Having a registered sex offender in your neighborhood drives down nearby property values. The National Bureau of Economic Research, a think tank run by economist Martin Feldstein, found that the value of houses declined 4.4 percent _ an average of $5,500 _ if they were within a 1/10th-mile radius of the residence of an identified sex offender.

While privacy concerns have slowed the use of radio-frequency identification tags in the United States, China is embracing the technology so the government can more easily verify the identity of its 1.3 billion citizens.

In-Stat, a market research firm, says China will buy 3 billion of the tags by 2009, making the Chinese Ministry of Public Security responsible for one of the largest such projects in the world. The tags use radio-frequency waves to transfer data from a tag and a reader.

Under a little-noticed program, the IRS paid out $27 million to anonymous informants between 2001 and 2005 for tipping off federal auditors to fraudulent items on returns.

The IRS inspector general says the program is efficient and cost-effective. The agency collected $340 million in taxes, fines, penalties and interest as a result of tips it got from informants. The inspector general recommended the agency speed up informant payments. It took an average of more than seven years to pay informants for tips.

In the battle between whales and cargo ships, whales lose. The Coast Guard now is moving toward establishing go-slow shipping lanes to protect the remaining stock of endangered North Atlantic right whales.

New rules establish “precautionary areas” requiring captains to navigate with caution around the ports of Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach, Fla., and Brunswick, Ga. New shipping routes also are being established for Boston and Provincetown, Mass., to avoid whale-birthing areas off Cape Cod.

The shipping industry has opposed go-slow lanes, contending they raise the cost of shipping.

The recent housing boom presents a greater threat to America’s historic neighborhoods than either the interstate highway system or urban renewal, says the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Trust President Richard Moe says “teardown cancer” is irrevocably altering historic neighborhoods as hulking McMansions replace quaint Victorians and quirky Romanesque Revivals.

Wind-farm advocates protest that Pentagon foot-dragging is leading to a halt in construction of new electricity-generating windmill farms. Congress gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a May 8 deadline for completion of a report on whether windmills interfere with vital defense radar systems, but the Pentagon says the report isn’t ready yet.

Wind-farm developers want to light a fire under Rumsfeld because they have their own deadline for completing new projects _ August 2007 _ to take advantage of generous tax credits Congress provided the industry.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com.)