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Colo. taxpayers paid $200,000 for governor's photos

12:32 PM, Jan 2, 2010   |    comments
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According to receipts and contracts obtained by The Associated Press under the Colorado Open Records Act, taxpayers paid that amount for photos of the Democratic governor signing bills and attending a lavish production for the state film commission.

Photos of the "Father of the Year" award taken by Imagine That! Entertainment cost taxpayers $200. The event was promoted by The Bawmann Group, a private consulting firm that also got a state contract, funded by a federal grant, worth $669,000 to promote fatherhood last year.

The state film commission photos cost $50, and two of the photos ended up on the governor's Web page. They were taken by Ritter's campaign photographer and show Ritter signing a bill providing tax incentives for film production throughout the state. The event was attended by lawmakers, dignitaries and lobbyists.

The videos of Bennet's selection to replace former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar were taken by No Credits Productions and cost taxpayers $250.

The most costly item was $200,000 for a series of television ads promoting consumer awareness and partnering with a television station to answer consumer questions. One of the 15 ads featured Ritter as spokesman urging the public to call with any complaints. The department said Ritter was chosen "to enhance the profile of these efforts to reach the widest possible audience."

Republicans complained that the whole campaign could have been produced and aired without using taxpayer funds when the issue came up in formal budget hearings.

The spending generally has irked Republicans, who say Ritter could have used the money to provide services instead of promoting his achievements as he heads into a re-election year.

"I don't think the people understand why state government is running television ads when we're in a budget crisis," said GOP Rep. David Balmer of Centennial. "I also think we should be concerned, especially during an election year, that we're giving Governor Ritter a lot of time on the air with taxpayer money."

Colorado faces a $560 million budget shortfall this fiscal year and a $1 billion shortfall next year.

Ritter's office said it is saving money by not hiring a staff photographer.

Ritter's spokesman, Evan Dreyer, said several programs, including the fatherhood initiative, were sponsored by legislation or federal grants that required the state to promote the groups' activities.

Dreyer said the governor's office also is meeting increased demand for photos and videos -- on the Internet, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube -- as well as from news media Web sites.

"Trying to communicate to as many as people as possible is part of running a 21st century communications operation," Dreyer said.

The practice is not uncommon in other states.

Missouri's Republican governor frequently hires an outside media contractor. The governors of New Hampshire, Oregon and Utah don't have their own photographers. However, Republican governors in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, and Democrats from Massachusetts, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Tennessee, have their own state-employed photographers.

A spokesman for Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee said the executive branch spends $300,000 a year on photography services that include two full-time photographers.

Colorado's Republican party chairman, Dick Wadhams, served as a spokesman for Ritter's predecessor, Gov. Bill Owens, who served from 1999 to 2007. Both he and Dan Hopkins, another former spokesman for Owens, said Owens didn't have a photographer or videographer. Any photos were taken by staffers who were on the state payroll, they said.

There is no law barring Ritter's supporters from using the taxpayer-funded photos in campaign commercials. Dreyer said the governor himself is prohibited from using them for campaign purposes - but acknowledged the photos and videos are not copyrighted and that outside groups are free to use them in campaign advertising.

The issue arose with a twist in Massachusetts, when former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney ran for president and bought his state-funded photo collection for a pittance.

Ritter's official state Web page features 31 pages of photos of the governor, and he invites people to download them as well as videos from his galleries. Some were taken by state employees, while others were paid for by taxpayers. Among them: A video of Ritter at the National Western Stock Show that cost $375, and $200 in taxpayer-paid photos of Ritter signing a job creation bill in May.

Some videos, like Ritter's state of the state speech, were already available on the state Web site. But taxpayers were billed $375 for Ritter's own Web production of his state of the state speech.

"None of these expenses are budget-busters. But this shows an arrogance on Ritter's part that it's OK to do self-promotion at taxpayer expense," said Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Independence Institute.

Dreyer noted that private Web sites are demanding better quality than video the state Web site provides of House and Senate sessions -- at a cost of $224,000 a year.

Rep. Kent Lambert, a Republican from Colorado Springs and a member of the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee, which sets spending priorities, said taxpayers don't need copies of Ritter's videos and photos and they shouldn't be billed for them. Lambert argued that many citizens take their own photos and videos of the governor's activities and post them on the Web.

Lambert said he pays for his own Web sites and posts state documents and photos of his legislative activities at his own expense.

Republicans were particularly galled by a separate $200,000 advertising campaign for the Department of Regulatory Agencies, which is charged with preventing consumer fraud. The radio and television ads promoted DORA's services and featured Ritter as spokesman.

Department Director Barbara Kelley told lawmakers this week that the ads were paid with fines paid by violators, not taxpayers.

GOP Rep. Balmer argued that lawmakers often use those funds to help balance the budget. Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, argued that Ritter was the best man for the job.

"He is the chief executive of the state. I would think he is the best spokesperson for our state," Ferrandino said.

Dreyer insisted the ads promoted consumer awareness, not Ritter.

Ritter photo gallery: http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/GovRitter/GOVR/1177024890390.

Ritter state video page: http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/GovRitter/GOVR/1177024890395.

(Copyright Associated Press, All Rights Reserved)

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