Chicken Little, Dildos and Oil Changes

July 26 2005, 2:49 PM
The fight over Referenda C&D has generally boiled down to two arguments: 1) The state is broke and needs more revenue (YES), and 2) The state has plenty of money and just spends wastefully (NO). Both sides have their statistics to back up their arguments, but the opposition seems to be reaching lately. Last week the opposition folks, led by the conservative Independence Institute, were bemoaning the spending of $5,000 on a state fellowship grant for an artist who made something that depicted sex toys on hooks. As the Denver Postreported:
The artist, Tsehai Johnson of Denver, received the fellowship from the Colorado Council on the Arts in 2003. The work, originally titled "Twelve Dildos on Hooks" and completed in 2000, was one of several pieces submitted to the CCOA by Johnson when she was applying for the fellowship grant. Johnson changed the title of the piece to "Large Implements on Hooks" before officially submitting the work to the council. She told 9News in an interview that she changed the title for artistic reasons. "I wanted the title to be a little more open-ended so that it didn't become so easily dismissed," she said.
While I'm not personally offended by this, I can also admit that I don't understand why putting dildos on hooks qualifies as art (though anyone who didn't laugh at the original name, "Twelve Dildos on Hooks," needs to take some medication. Come on, that's hilarious.). I always thought it was ridiculous that you could randomly splatter paint on a canvas and call that art, but I had no idea that you could just buy stuff at the store, put it on a wall, and call yourself an artist. That's like riding the old, busted brown penny horse at the grocery store and calling yourself a cowboy. Anyway, I digress. So opponents to C&D are all up in arms about this $5,000 expenditure, which implies that if Colorado would just stop funding dildo-wielding artists then the budget would be in great shape. Now today, The Rocky Mountain News reported that a $600 oil change that the Independence Institute crowed about wasn't a big deal after all -- because it was for a semi tractor, not a passenger car.
That $600 oil change for a state vehicle, a lightning rod for criticism when it was uncovered in an audit this year, might not have been so overpriced after all, lawmakers conceded Monday. The vehicle wasn't a sedan or a pickup truck, but a 1999 Sterling semi tractor, which needed 10 gallons of oil, five new filters and inspection of numerous brake pads, a state official told lawmakers Monday during a follow-up audit of the Department of Personnel and Administration's fleet-management program. More recently, opponents of the November ballot questions, Referendums C and D, seized on the $600 oil change as an indicator that Colorado doesn't face a budget crisis, but that it just spends money unwisely. They put together a radio ad highlighting the $600 oil change, urging voters to say "no" to the request that Colorado be allowed to spend all of its collected tax revenues for the next five years. But Monday, Scott Madsen, deputy director at the Division of Central Services, said the expense was close to what any service station might charge. When Coloradans heard about the $600 oil change in February, many made telephone calls or wrote letters to the editor suggesting that the state just go to Grease Monkey and get it done for about $30. The ad "was a great sound bite. People are always going to be clever" with how they create political ads, said Rep. Fran Coleman, D-Denver. "But it appears, at least on the surface, that the $600 was an appropriate cost. I was satisfied." Added Senate Minority Leader Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, "There doesn't seem to be a thing wrong with it. It was probably a deal." ...Jon Caldara, head of the conservative Independence Institute that paid for the radio ad, said he still thinks such a truck could have gotten an oil change for about $125. "I'm very satisfied with the ad," Caldara said, "but we might have to pull it just because we're finding new and better stuff" regarding wasted spending.
Forget for a moment that Caldara was obviously stretching the truth with the ads about the oil change. And forget that he seems to think the oil change could have been done for $125 instead of $600. The problem with all of this crowing about the budget is that opponents of C&D are relying on insignificant expenditures to make their point that government is wasteful -- and it's hard to say that voters are going to buy it. Granted, dildo artwork probably doesn't make a lot of people proud of their government, but voters also aren't stupid; you can't tell me that $600 or $5,000 in wasteful spending is the reason that the State of Colorado is in a budget crisis. That's ridiculous. The soundbyte strategy of calling C&D a "tax increase," while an inaccurate game of semantics, is still a good strategy for opponents of the measure. But trotting out drop-in-a-bucket expenditures as some example of a wasteful government run amok is not only ineffective, it may be giving proponents of the measure more ammunition to say that the NO on C&D campaign is run by Chicken Little. Dildos may be falling, but the sky isn't.