A tax increase for adult toys?

Posted: Jul 31, 2005 12:00 AM

My mother reads this column. So, trust me, I don't plan to talk about sex toys any more than I have to. I'm no expert on the subject, either. But I do know they're not worth a multi-billion dollar tax increase.

This November, Colorado voters will face Referendums C and D, placed on the ballot by state legislators. With Referendum C, politicians ask voters to throw out the caps they'd imposed on state government spending when they passed the 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiative. If passed, Referendum C slaps Coloradans with a $3.6 billion tax increase. Referendum D goes a step further, allowing the state government to borrow still $2 billion more, which with interest could cost taxpayers more than $3 billion to pay back.

Why are Referendum C and D needed? To allow a frugal, yet cash-strapped, government to fix its crumbling schools and infrastructure? Or are these two referendums all about the politicians' insatiable desire to spend money?

And, what on earth does the issue of government spending have to do with sex toys?

A lot, really. Recently, it came to light that a sculpture entitled "Twelve Dildos on Hooks" was purchased with $5,000 in state funds. Actually, no, I take that back: when she applied for government funding, the artist, Tsehai Johnson, changed the title of her work to "Large Implements on Hooks."

Seems the folks spending Coloradans' hard-earned dough on transcendent works of art were none the wiser. They didn't quite get it. "No alarms went off when I looked at it," said one arts council member.

The work is nothing more than twelve hooks in a straight line across a wall with the ceramic "implements" dangling from the hooks.

Ms. Johnson explained the title change, saying, "I wanted the title to be a little more open-ended so that it didn't become so easily dismissed." She told a Denver TV station, "They're meant to be sex toys, but sex toys that are talking about a lot of issues."

In most states, such scandals hardly matter. But in Colorado, what voters and taxpayers think actually does matter. Coloradans have a statewide process of initiative and referendum, which allowed them to enact some fiscal restraint on government through the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Without the approval of their state's political establishment.

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR for short, limits the growth of government from year to year to no more than inflation plus population growth. The result has been an enormous success. Since passage, Colorado has experienced the second fastest economic growth of all the states. And Colorado taxpayers have received $3.2 billion in refunds from the TABOR Amendment.

During the boom years of the 1990s, many states nearly doubled state spending as tax revenue poured in. They spent it all and looked for more. Then, when the bubble burst, these states had severe deficits between what government planned to spend and the tax revenue they were collecting. Not in Colorado. TABOR requires the state to refund taxes collected over and above the allowable growth in government spending. Thus, TABOR kept government growth reasonable and the downturn in the economy was not so destabilizing.

TABOR also requires that if (when) legislators want to increase taxes or government spending more than allowed by the TABOR caps, they have to ask the voters. Nicely. In an election.

Hence Referendums C and D. And since TABOR gives voters more say-so, politicians have reason to worry that the spectacle of governments buying pornographic, obscure, or just plain stupid artwork will sour voters on their tax increase agenda.

Supporters of ever higher taxes and government spending (to provide ever-expanded — but rarely useful or efficient — government services) say that the sex toy sculpture is just a red herring in the debate about Referendums C and D and government spending. It is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions more they say government needs for basic services like education, roads, and police.

It is indeed a drop in the bucket, relatively speaking. But $5,000 is still $5,000 and it rightfully belongs to the taxpayers. Plus, the attitude that $5,000 decisions don't count, because they are smaller than million- and billion-dollar decisions, is not found among people spending their own money. Rather, it is the exclusive province of those spending other people's money.

In the Colorado Freedom Report, Ari Armstrong writes what we all could have surmised, "The legislature has failed to find efficient ways of reorganizing state government, and it has failed to cut wasteful and low-priority programs." That's why politicians and bureaucrats so deeply desire billion-dollar increases in their budgets. It's not their money, and they can't even imagine ways to cut back. (Of course by "cut back" we're not really talking about actual cuts, but merely cuts to the rate of growth. Actual state spending has gone up every year, even under TABOR's fiscal restraint.)

Governor Bill Owens, whose support of C and D has angered many taxpayers, admitted that Johnson's artwork was "offensive," and argued, "It serves as an important reminder that whenever tax dollars are involved, government must be cautious and prudent."

Nice try, Governor, but no, it serves as yet another spectacular reminder that government is neither cautious nor prudent with our tax dollars. In November, Colorado voters will tell Owens and all the other politicians and special interests the very same thing: No.