FactCheck.org http://www.factcheck.org A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center Wed, 01 Oct 2014 21:48:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 Settling the Dust in Arkansas http://www.factcheck.org/2014/10/settling-the-dust-in-arkansas/ Wed, 01 Oct 2014 20:50:30 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88996 The Arkansas Senate race continues to be fertile ground for fact-checkers. Sen. Mark Pryor tries to make political hay out of agricultural dust by distorting the facts in a new TV ad, while Republicans manufacture a bogus jobs claim against the Democratic senator.

Taking a page out of the Republican “small government” playbook, Pryor takes credit for halting an Environmental Protection Agency attempt to regulate farm dust. But in Pryor’s example of federal over-regulation, the EPA is a straw man; it was merely conducting a routine mandatory review and never seriously considered regulations of farm dust.

While Pryor’s ad casts the Arkansas senator as a champion of deregulation, an ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee claims Pryor is responsible for “new regulations that cripple job creators, killing Arkansas jobs.” The ad cites as evidence the 55,000 manufacturing jobs lost in Arkansas since Pryor entered the Senate. The ad does not mention, however, that manufacturing jobs were in steady decline for several years before Pryor took office, or that most of those job losses occurred during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush.

Farm Dust

Dire warnings about EPA regulation of farm dust are like political weeds that keep cropping up. But Pryor’s ad is the first we’ve seen it this political season.

The ad begins with Pryor kneeling in a farm field, handling soil, as he says, “The EPA wanted to write a federal regulation limiting agricultural dust. Obviously, Washington knows nothing about farming. Working with Republicans and Democrats, we stopped it.”

But it turns out there wasn’t actually anything to stop. It’s true that in 2011, the EPA reviewed its standards on particulate matter, as required by law. And that raised concern among some legislators that it would lead to regulation of farm dust. Pryor was among a bipartisan group of 32 senators who wrote to the EPA to urge the agency not to issue such regulations (though he did not co-sponsor the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011).

Letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Feb. 15, 2011: While we strongly support efforts to safeguard the wellbeing of Americans, most Americans would agree that common sense dictates that the federal government should not regulate dust creation in farm fields and on rural roads. … Given the ubiquitous nature of dust in agricultural settings and many rural environments, and the near impossible task of mitigating dust in most settings, we are hopeful that the EPA will give special consideration to the realities of farm and rural environments, including retaining the current standard.

The EPA never did enact any dust regulations. But was that due to the intervention of Pryor and other legislators? Not really. The EPA administrator said the agency never had any intention to regulate farmers’ dust.

As we wrote when the issue was raised by Newt Gingrich during a Republican presidential primary debate in 2012, the EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to periodically review the standards for particulate matter to make sure that they are in line with current science. In April 2011, the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards recommended that the agency consider “either retaining or revising the current standard” downward for coarse particles, which the agency considers a risk to public health. Inhalable coarse particles — including those found in dusty industries such as farming — would have been subject to the stricter limits.

But during congressional testimony in March 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the EPA had no intention of changing the standards currently in place. That was still the agency’s position six months later when an EPA spokeswoman told FactCheck.org that the review was still ongoing, but that there were “no plans to put stricter standards in place.” And in October 2011, Jackson formally announced her final decision, saying she would propose no change to current EPA regulations.

In other words, the policy was reviewed, but the EPA never said it “wanted to write a federal regulation limiting agricultural dust,” as Pryor’s ad claims.

Regulator or Deregulator?

The narrator of the Pryor ad claims the Arkansas senator “has led a bipartisan effort to cut government regulations.” And at the end of the ad, Pryor says he is “working to make Washington smarter and smaller.”

The message stands in stark contrast to one from an NRSC ad that hit the airwaves the same day, claiming Pryor is responsible for “new regulations that cripple job creators, killing Arkansas jobs.” On screen, it reads, “Mark Pryor, 55,000 manufacturing jobs lost.”

It’s true, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that Arkansas has lost 54,700 manufacturing jobs between January 2003, when Pryor took office, and August 2014, the latest data available. However, manufacturing jobs were in a steady skid long before Pryor joined the Senate. In the two-and-a-half years before Pryor took office, Arkansas lost 30,700 manufacturing jobs. And most of the manufacturing jobs lost while Pryor has been in office — more than 36,000 of the 54,700 — came during Bush’s presidency. Presidential administrations write the federal regulations, though legislators often pass laws that require them.

Whether Pryor is a net regulator or deregulator is a matter of debate.

Pryor’s ad correctly notes that in 2011, Pryor was co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bipartisan Regulatory Accountability Act, which would have required federal agencies to assess potential costs and benefits of proposed regulations, as well as alternatives. It also would have expanded judicial oversight of agency rule-making. The House version passed, but the Senate bill was never considered.

The Pryor campaign also points to Pryor’s work to ease regulations related to oil spills on farms and to exclude farm runoff from some anti-pollution provisions, as well as his vote to protect farmers from Clean Water Act regulations.

The NRSC, meanwhile, cites a number of votes Pryor cast against relaxing various regulations. For example, in June 2012, Pryor voted against a motion to consider a joint resolution to nullify an EPA rule relating to mercury and air toxic standards for utilities. And in November 2011, Pryor voted against a resolution to nullify an EPA rule regarding cross-state air pollution.

The NRSC also points to Pryor’s vote for the Affordable Care Act, which it claims will hurt job growth (a claim we looked at in-depth and found independent, nonpartisan experts projected “minimal” impact on jobs); and his 2008 vote to consider a plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions and set up a trading system for companies to buy and sell emissions allowances (though the bill never passed, and therefore could not have affected job losses).

Ultimately, whether one is a net regulator or deregulator is difficult to assess. Both sides can point to examples of laws Pryor has supported that would have resulted in an increase or decrease in federal regulations. However, the ad’s suggestion that Pryor’s record on regulation is responsible for the loss of 55,000 manufacturing jobs ignores the decline of such jobs in the years before Pryor took office and the fact that most of the 55,000 jobs were lost during the Bush presidency.

– Robert Farley

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Black Lung Battle in West Virginia http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/black-lung-battle-in-west-virginia/ Fri, 26 Sep 2014 22:25:17 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88877 Republican Evan Jenkins claims Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall “cut black lung benefits,” in an ad that fires back after Rahall claimed Jenkins pledged to “take away” black lung benefits from coal miners. We already said Rahall’s ad was deceptive, but Jenkins’ response is misleading.

Jenkins’ ad refers to a 1981 bill that was intended to shore up the financing of the program by doubling the excise tax on coal. It did tighten eligibility requirements for future applicants, but it didn’t cut the amount paid to those then receiving such benefits. It was supported by the United Mine Workers, which feared more sweeping action by the Reagan administration.

The battle over coal voters began in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District earlier this year, when the House Majority PAC launched an ad wrongly claiming that Jenkins “vowed to repeal black lung benefits.” Jenkins vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, not end black lung benefits. The ACA included provisions named after former Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia that made it easier for miners and their survivors to get benefits.

Rahall followed up in September with an ad that went even further, featuring a coal miner who said he heard Jenkins say “that he’s gonna take away our black lung benefits.” Jenkins has said he’s opposed to any cuts to the federal program.

Jenkins’ counter-attack, launched Sept. 24, cites our work, saying the Rahall ad was “false, deceptive.” That’s what we said. But it’s misleading for the ad to claim that Rahall was the one who “cut black lung benefits.”

The Jenkins ad doesn’t mention that it’s talking about a 33-year-old law, signed by President Ronald Reagan on Dec. 29, 1981. In fact, when it says Rahall “cut black lung benefits,” the screen shows a picture of Rahall with President Obama and the old roll call vote, leaving the false impression that this supposed cut occurred recently.

At the time Reagan signed the law, he said, “A major purpose of this legislation is to restore solvency to the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.” And indeed the Social Security Administration said the trust fund was in the red, and the legislation was intended “to stabilize the program administered by the Labor Department by reforming certain eligibility and benefit provisions and by increasing Trust Fund revenues.”

Under the federal program, which was initially established in 1969, benefits were intended to be paid by states through workers’ compensation programs, and if not, by the responsible coal operator. And if not that, then the Labor Department would pay. A federal trust fund was set up in 1978 after it became clear states weren’t amending their workers’ comp programs to cover black lung. When no coal operator could be identified as the responsible party, the trust fund, financed by an excise tax on coal, paid.

The Associated Press reported in 1981 that a Labor Department report put the trust fund’s deficit at the end of fiscal 1981 at $1.2 billion and estimated it could reach $9 billion by 1995.

The 1981 law doubled the excise tax on coal to bring solvency to the trust fund, and it increased the interest rate coal operators had to pay if they delayed black lung benefit payments and had the trust fund advance the amount.

In terms of eligibility, the law rescinded a presumption of eligibility for miners who were both disabled from a pulmonary or respiratory ailment and had worked in a coal mine for at least 15 years. It also said that a survivor would only be eligible for benefits if the cause of death of the miner was pneumoconiosis (black lung disease). Previously, there was no such requirement. The changes applied to new claims filed after the legislation was enacted.

The law, the Black Lung Benefits Revenue Act, enjoyed broad bipartisan support, passing the House by a 363-47 vote, and the Senate by a 63-30 vote. Coal country lawmakers were overwhelmingly behind it: In the House, the entire Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming delegations all voted yes, and in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, all but two of each state’s representatives voted yes. In the Senate, all but one of those coal state senators supported it.

The United Mine Workers backed the legislation, but reluctantly. The publication Coal Week wrote on Nov. 9, 1981: “Fear of Ronald Reagan’s political strength kept members of the United Mine Workers’ political action council agonizing last week over whether to endorse black lung reforms they don’t want.” The Associated Press reported the next day that the union supported the legislation, noting that UMW President Sam Church earlier had organized a protest march against President Reagan and supposed administration plans to revamp the program.

That’s all to say that Rahall’s “aye” vote in December 1981 is a lot more complicated than being a vote about cutting benefits. The law did restrict eligibility for future beneficiaries, but it didn’t “cut” what those already eligible were getting. Church was quoted as saying in that AP article that then-current recipients “don’t have anything to worry about with this proposal.”

Rahall’s latest ad says he “helped expand and improve black lung benefits,” a reference to the ACA provisions. That’s accurate, as we’ve said. But voters may be interested to learn that those provisions loosened some of the eligibility restrictions put into place by his vote for the 1981 law. The ACA allowed for a presumption of eligibility for miners who worked for at least 15 years in a coal mine and were disabled by a respiratory disease. And it said survivors of eligible miners would be automatically entitled to benefits.

Rahall had been introducing legislation to restore such provisions since at least the late 1990s.

– Lori Robertson

Update, Sept. 29: We had contacted the United Mine Workers of America for comment, but did not get a response until after we had published this article. Phil Smith, director of governmental affairs, told us in an email: “At the outset of the Reagan Administration, a push was made by the coal companies to do away with the federal black lung benefits program altogether. You are right that we did reluctantly back the legislation, and we did so because the alternative was the end of the program entirely. … At some point in the legislative process, it becomes apparent that half a loaf is better then nothing at all.”

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Cherry-Picking Salary Data in Oregon http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/cherry-picking-salary-data-in-oregon/ Fri, 26 Sep 2014 22:17:06 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88866 An ad from Republican Monica Wehby cherry-picks data to make the case that Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is “paying the women on his staff thousands less than their male counterparts.”

Actually, in 2013, women earned about 97 cents for every dollar earned by men in Merkley’s office, without accounting for job title, years of experience or other variables. Wehby uses data on less than a third of the staff over a shorter time period to make her claim.

The ad features a chart that highlights average salaries for men and women with three job descriptions — legislative assistant, field representative and press secretary — and suggests women in each case are being paid thousands less than men in the same job.

The chart is based on public records of pay during the last six months of fiscal 2013, a period between April 1, 2013, and  Sept. 30, 2013 — rather than the most recent six-month data in the public record or the full 2013 fiscal year. Merkley’s record looks more favorable if one considers the data for the entire 2013 fiscal year, or current salary data provided by Merkley’s Senate office.

Wehby also used incomplete data. The ad highlights pay disparities in three job categories, but she excluded one male legislative assistant who only worked four of the six months. If his pro-rated pay is included, women fared better in this category than men.

Moreover, by highlighting just three job categories, Wehby cites data for just 11 employees, when the office has 36 staffers. Looking at all of the employees for the entire 2013 fiscal year, male employees in the office earned an average of $56,550 compared with $54,683 for women. So one could say that women earned about 97 cents for every dollar earned by men in Merkley’s office — without accounting for job responsibilities, which vary and account for the higher male salary in the case of press secretaries. Nor does that comparison account for higher pay based on such factors as education, experience and years working on the staff.

“Jeff Merkley has stooped to a new low, shamefully attacking Monica Wehby, the first woman to graduate from her medical program as a neurosurgeon, saying she doesn’t support paying women as much as men,” the ad’s narrator states. “Why would he tell such a ridiculous lie? Senate records reveal that Merkley’s paying the women on his staff thousands less than their male counterparts.”

Wehby, who is trying to make up ground in her bid to unseat Merkley, doesn’t mention this in her ad, but she is referring to Merkley’s criticism of her opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Democratic-sponsored bill sought to bridge pay disparities between men and women and included provisions that prohibited companies from barring employees from talking with co-workers about their pay; required businesses to give a reason for disparities in pay; and enhanced a woman’s ability to sue employers for punitive damages if she was paid unfairly.

Republicans uniformly opposed the bill, arguing that the law already prohibits unequal pay based on gender, and warning the bill would simply increase civil lawsuits.

“I would absolutely favor any legislation that supports equal pay for women, but this was a flawed piece of legislation,” Wehby said in a KGW-TV interview on Aug. 10. “It did not take into account experience, hours worked, education. I would be concerned that it would make it more difficult for businesses to hire women, because of the fear of lawsuits. They would tend to steer away. And I think that that’s an unintended consequence of laws like this that increase regulation and legislation.”

Ironically, Wehby’s ad accusing Merkley of “paying the women on his staff thousands less than their male counterparts” does not account for some of those very same variables — such as experience, hours worked or education. Moreover, a closer look at the figures cited in the Wehby ad reveal how arbitrary some of the comparisons can be.

Again, all of the ad’s statistics are culled from public records provided in secretary of the Senate reports for the six-month period between April 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2013, the second half of the 2013 fiscal year.

The Wehby campaign notes that under the job description “legislative assistant,” one man made $42,500 and two women averaged $34,546. Not counted was a man who served as a legislative assistant for four of those six months. If his pro-rated salary was included, it would show women were making, on average, nearly $800 more than the men.

Also, although current pay data is not yet in the public record, Merkley’s Senate office provided the press with data that show the office currently employs five legislative assistants, three men with an average annual pay of $67,919, and two women with an average annual pay of $74,533. In other words, they contend, a current chart would flip the script.

With regard to field representatives, the Wehby campaign notes that two men had an average six-month pay of $32,172, while four women had an average pay of $26,568. That disparity held up when we looked at the full 2013 fiscal year or the first six months of the 2014 fiscal year. But according to the current employment data provided by Merkley’s Senate office, there are now three male field representatives making an average yearly salary of $56,578 and three female field representatives making an average annual salary of $56,054.

As for press secretaries, Merkley’s Senate office has two: one male who made $28,000 in the six-month period selected by the Wehby campaign, and one female who made $23,000. The Merkley campaign notes — and public records reflect — that the male press secretary is also responsible for new media communications, which the campaign says accounts for some of the additional pay. In other words, the two positions aren’t the same job.

What should be clear by now is that there are lots of ways to slice this data depending on the time period chosen and whether one includes employees who work only part of the year. The Wehby campaign used parameters that cast the Merkley record in the worst light.

The Merkley campaign provided us with a list of the salaries and gender of all 36 employees on his Senate staff for the entirety of the 2013 fiscal year, and we checked those numbers against public records for accuracy. In all, the 18 male employees in the office earned an average of $56,550, and the 18 female employees earned an average of $54,683.

So one could say that women earned about 97 cents for every dollar earned by men in Merkley’s office. But that isn’t for doing the same jobs. And even among those who do the same job, Merkley’s campaign noted that some are paid more based on education, experience and years working on the staff.

But is this a case of Democrats getting a bit of their own medicine?

Advocating for the Paycheck Fairness Act, some Democrats, such as Sen. Harry Reid, cited a statistic that “women take home 77 cents for every dollar their male colleagues earn for doing exactly the same work.” We looked into a similar claim from President Obama and concluded that it was not true that the figure applied to women doing the same work as men, and that the implication that discrimination by employers is responsible for the difference was an exaggeration.

Some Republicans called Democrats hypocrites, citing an analysis by the Free Beacon — based on public pay records — that said “female staffers in Democratic Senate offices were paid just 91 cents for each dollar paid to male staffers. The average salary for a woman was more than $5,500 below the average salary for a man.” Republicans have cited similar analyses in ads attacking Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Michigan Senate candidate Rep. Gary Peters claiming they pay females on their staffs less.

But as is the case with Merkley’s staff, judging pay disparity solely on the average salaries of men and women in a given office — without factoring in variables such as whether men and women are performing the same jobs, and whether they have comparable experience, education and years working for a company — can provide an incomplete picture.

– Robert Farley

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Abortion Distortions 2014 http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/abortion-distortions-2014/ Fri, 26 Sep 2014 21:30:56 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88769 Summary

In the 2014 fight for control of Congress, Democrats are sometimes using a tactic they’ve used before: Falsifying or exaggerating the positions their Republican opponents have taken on abortion.

The real contrast between the parties on this polarizing issue is stark enough: Democrats tend to favor a legal right to abortion, and Republicans tend to oppose it. But in a number of TV ads we’ve seen running in September, the divide is made to seem wider than it really is.

  • An ad in Virginia falsely accuses GOP House candidate Barbara Comstock of seeking to make abortions illegal “even in cases of rape or incest.” She isn’t.
  • Another Virginia ad says GOP Rep. Scott Rigell favors limiting funds for abortions “only to victims of forcible rape.” Not true. He also supports federally funded abortions in cases of incest or life-threatening pregnancies, and has dropped the “forcible” qualifier in cases of rape.
  • In New Hampshire, a Democratic ad says GOP House candidate Marilinda Garcia “voted to make abortions illegal, even in cases of rape or incest.” But what she voted for was a state bill that applied only to cases in which a “partially delivered living fetus” is killed.
  • In Alaska, an ad attacking GOP Senate candidate Dan Sullivan says he would “make abortion a crime even if a woman’s health is threatened.” Actually, Sullivan has said he’d allow abortions to save a mother’s life, and has been silent on an exemption for lesser health threats.
  • In Colorado, an ad claims GOP Senate candidate Cory Gardner is co-sponsoring a bill that “makes all abortions illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.” But that vague measure would declare a belief by Congress that life begins at conception and that a fetus enjoys Constitutional protection. Its exact legal effect, if any, would be decided by the courts.

Analysis

In 2012, the Obama campaign repeatedly made the false claim that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was opposed to allowing abortions for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest. That wasn’t true, as we pointed out – again and again. Now, we are seeing the same tactic being used by Democrats in several 2014 House and Senate elections.

In race after race, Democratic ads are misrepresenting, distorting and exaggerating their Republican opponents’ position on abortion to make them seem more strict (and therefore less popular) than they really are.

A False Claim About ‘Rape and Incest’

This ad by John Foust, the Democratic nominee for the House in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, claims that Republican nominee Barbara Comstock “wants to make abortion illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.” But Comstock says the opposite: “I support a rape/incest/life of the mother exception on abortion,” she said in a statement relayed to us by her campaign.

And that’s not the first time Comstock has taken that position. She was asked specifically about where she stood on “abortion in cases of rape or incest” while seeking the endorsement of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund in July. The fund normally doesn’t make its questionnaires public, but in this case the group sent a letter giving the full text of Comstock’s response. “I do support a life of the mother and rape and incest exception for abortion,” the SBA quoted Comstock as stating.

The Foust website provides no support for the ad’s claim. When we pressed for an explanation, a Foust aide told us the claim was based on Comstock’s 2012 vote in favor of a bill that some referred to as a “personhood” measure in the Virginia House of Delegates, where she is a member.

That bill, however, would not have banned any abortions, and did not even mention rape or incest. It would have declared that under Virginia law, “The life of each human being begins at conception” and that unborn children would have “all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons” in the state. But neither side claimed at the time that the bill would ban abortions in Virginia.

For one thing, the bill stated explicitly that the rights it would have granted to unborn children would be subject to “the Constitution of the United States and decisional interpretations thereof by the United States Supreme Court,” which has for more than 40 years held that states cannot outlaw abortion during the first months of a woman’s pregnancy. The Supreme Court first held that in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and reaffirmed that finding in the landmark 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Abortion foes who supported the bill expected far less of it than criminalizing abortions, but said it might have provided grounds for wrongful death lawsuits in some cases. “Had HB 1 been enacted, one practical effect would have been to create a wrongful death cause of action for the death of an unborn child in certain situations (for example, in instances of domestic violence),” said the Virginia Catholic Conference in a statement lamenting the bill’s failure. The bill passed the state House but later died in the state Senate.

Pro-abortion-rights groups didn’t go so far as to claim it would outlaw abortion, either. The worst that NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia said about it is that the “dangerous” measure would “lay the legal groundwork” to ban all abortions. But even if such “groundwork” was laid, Comstock states explicitly that she doesn’t favor banning abortion for victims of rape or incest as the Foust ad claims, and Foust has yet to produce any evidence that she does.

An Incorrect Claim About ‘Forcible Rape’

This ad says Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia “supports limiting funds for abortions to only victims of forcible rape.” That’s not correct. Under the bill the ad refers to, public funds could also continue to be used for abortions for victims of incest, and to save the life of the mother.

The ad from Rigell’s opponent, Democrat Suzanne Patrick, cites his co-sponsorship of H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” in 2011. That bill, as explained in the Washington Post story also cited by the ad, sought to make permanent “several provisions that have been law for years but require annual renewal by Congress,” including the Hyde Amendment that prevents federally funded health care programs such as Medicaid from covering abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger. It was a top priority of the Republican leadership following the 2010 election in which they regained a majority in the House. Rigell was one of 227 co-sponsors.

The bill, as it was introduced, would have narrowed the exemption for rape to “forcible” rape, which under the FBI’s definition includes rape using force or the threat of force, but does not include “statutory” rape, which is sex with a person who is legally too young to give consent, or physically or mentally incapacitated. So, the ad would have been accurate had it said Rigell favored “cutting off federal abortion funds for victims of statutory rape.”

But even that was a fleeting position, soon reversed. The word “forcible” was dropped from the bill in committee, and wasn’t included in the version of the bill that reached the House floor and was passed, 251 to 175, on May 4, 2011, with Rigell among those voting in favor. It later died in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.

Another ‘Rape and Incest’ Distortion

This ad claims that Marilinda Garcia, the Republican candidate in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, “voted to make abortions illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.” That’s not true, except for abortions in which a “partially delivered living fetus” is killed.

The ad is sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It cites a vote Garcia cast June 27, 2012 on a “partial-birth abortion” bill in the state House of Representatives. The vote was to override the governor’s veto, and Garcia was not alone. Two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate voted to override, and the bill became law effective Jan. 1, 2013.

It’s true that the “partial-birth” abortion ban allows an exception only for the life of the mother — not for rape or incest. But it doesn’t affect the law applying to the far more common forms of abortion.

Misleading on Abortions for ‘Health’ Reasons 

This ad from a liberal super PAC called “Put Alaska First” claims that Dan Sullivan, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Alaska, “would make abortion a crime even if a woman’s health is threatened.” That’s misleading. Sullivan has said he’d allow abortion to save the life of the mother, and in cases of rape or incest.

The ad cites a questionnaire signed by Sullivan. Alaska Family Action, an anti-abortion group, asked which of six statements “most closely reflects” his view. Sullivan checked off a statement saying “abortion should be illegal except when necessary to save the life of the mother, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.”

Sullivan Questionnaire

None of the choices included an exemption for non-life-threatening “health” reasons, and Sullivan wasn’t asked about such an exemption later at an Alaska Family Action forum where he appeared along with two other candidates seeking the Republican nomination. Neither of the other GOP candidates favored exemptions for rape or incest. Sullivan later defeated both of them in the Republican primary.

It’s easy to speculate that Sullivan might oppose such a “health” exemption in cases where a mother’s life was not at risk. During the debate, he defended allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest “because they’re so, such horrendous situations.” But the ad is wrong to pass off such speculation as fact, and could well lead some viewers to think — incorrectly — that he wouldn’t allow abortion in the case of a life-threatening health situation.

Debatable Claims About ‘Life at Conception’ Bill

This ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee claims GOP Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado co-sponsored a bill that “makes all abortions illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.” That’s a debatable opinion, not a fact. The anti-abortion measure makes no mention of rape or incest, and it’s far from clear what its effect would be.

The ad refers to H.R. 1091, the so-called “Life at Conception Act,” which was introduced March 12, 2013. Gardner signed on as a co-sponsor on July 23, 2013. All but one of the 132 co-sponsors are Republicans. A separate and almost identically worded Senate version of the “Life at Conception Act” currently has 21 co-sponsors, all Republicans, led by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The bills say, “Congress hereby declares that the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being,” and they define “human being” as “each and every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization.” It is thus similar to “personhood” bills and ballot initiatives in Colorado and a handful of other states. So far, none has succeeded.

Proponents of the ”Life at Conception Act” make sweeping claims for it. “This bill would extend the Constitutional protection of life to the unborn from the time of conception,” according to Paul. The National Pro-Life Alliance argues that the bill would “dismantle” the Roe v. Wade decision. That’s because the high court’s majority said specifically in Roe v. Wade that if a fetus can be established to be a “person” under the Constitution, “the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.”

But just because Congress “declares” something doesn’t mean that the Supreme Court is obliged to agree. As the Supreme Court famously held in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” So, there’s uncertainty about the legal impact of the “Life at Conception” bill.

But even assuming that the sponsors’ sweeping claims turn out to be accurate, that still falls short of necessarily making “all” abortions illegal “even in cases of rape or incest,” as the ad claims. Paul, for one, has refused to make that claim for his bill. He was asked on CNN whether he “would have no exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother.” And he said, “What I would say is that there are thousands of exceptions. I’m a physician and every individual case is going to be different.” A spokesman for Paul later tried to clarify that, telling an anti-abortion news website that Paul was trying to say that “a singular exception to save the life of the mother would likely cover thousands of individual cases.”

So, we find that the ad goes too far in claiming Gardner’s bill would “make all abortions illegal,” without exception.

(The ad also claims that Gardner’s bill would “make most common forms of birth control illegal.” The bill could lead to that, though it would, again, take court cases to determine the impact. As we reported in our Aug. 15 article, “A Fight Over Birth Control in Colorado,” Gardner himself says he has changed his mind and no longer supports the Colorado “personhood” initiative, precisely because it could threaten the legality of common forms of birth control. But the federal bill he still supports contains the same language. And the nonpartisan American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that defining a fertilized egg as a person with legal rights “would have wide-reaching harmful implications … on women’s access to contraception.”)

When Claims are No Longer True

 

This TV spot from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee uses the handwritten responses of GOP Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado in 2008 to make its case that what it says is “undeniable.” But that was six years ago and the ad fails to note that Coffman has changed his position since then.

The ad says, “Does Coffman want to outlaw a woman’s right to choose? Yes. Even in cases of incest and rape? Yes, and yes.” And that’s true. Coffman answered “yes” to each question in a questionnaire from Colorado Right to Life when he first ran for his seat in the 2008 election, which he won. And though the questions were phrased differently than the ad, they carry the same meaning.

 

Coffman Question 2

Question 2 asked, “Do you agree that abortion is always wrong, even when the baby’s father is a criminal (a rapist)? Coffman penned in “yes.”

Coffman Question 7

Question 7 asked, “Will you refuse to support any legislation that would allow abortions, even if it is a ‘pro-life’ bill? (i.e., legislation that says ‘Abortion shall be prohibited unless…’)?”  And Coffman again wrote in, “yes.”

Even though the word “incest” isn’t mentioned, the meaning is clear: Coffman staked out a position that abortion is “always wrong” and should be illegal without exception.

That’s not a popular position. In the most recent Gallup Poll, for example, only 21 percent agreed that abortion should be illegal “in all circumstances,” while 50 percent said it should be “legal under certain circumstances” and 28 percent favored legal abortions “under any circumstances.”

The political unpopularity of banning abortion without exception explains why Democrats are eager to publicize Coffman’s position. Unfortunately, it also explains — but doesn’t excuse — their habit of falsely accusing opponents of holding such a position when they really don’t or, in Coffman’s case, no longer do.

Coffman issued a statement in June 2013 saying, “I strongly support the exceptions for rape, incest, and protecting the life of the mother.” That was a change from his position in 2012, when the Denver Post reported that he supported an exception only for the life of the mother. The paper reported the change in Coffman’s position in a story on April 16, but then pulled the article from its website because the politics editor deemed the story not “new news,” citing the June 2013 statement.

The DCCC ad also says that Coffman supported a state ballot measure in 2008 on “personhood,” which is accurate. But it fails to mention that Coffman took no position on the state initiative in 2012, when an attempt to place it on the ballot failed, or that Coffman now says he is opposed to it. In a story earlier this month on a candidate debate, the Post wrote: “Coffman said he backed away from supporting personhood a couple years ago because such measures are too broad, with effects that made him uncomfortable.” The paper also recently quoted Coffman as saying, “I don’t support personhood.”

Correction, Sept. 26: This story has been updated to reflect that Coffman has changed his position on abortion exceptions and the state “personhood” initiative. We apologize for the oversight.

– by Brooks Jackson

Sources

Adams, Becket. “CNN Asked Rand Paul About Abortion Exceptions: This Is How He Answered.” The Blaze.  19 Mar 2013.

Alaska Family Action Debate.” 5 Aug 2014.

American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “ACOG Statement on ‘Personhood’ Measures.”  10 Feb 2012.

Caruso, Jeff, executive director, Virginia Catholic Conference. Statement on Failure of Two Pro-Life: Bills HB 1 and HB 62. 28 Feb 2012.

Coffman, Mike. “Colorado Right to Life: Candidate Questionaire.”

Ertelt, Steven. “After Controversy, Rand Paul Clarifies He’s 100% Pro-Life on Abortion.” LifeNews.com. 21 Mar 2013.

Farley, Robert. “Twisting Romney’s Abortion Stance.” FactCheck.org. 9 Jul 2012.

Farley, Robert. “Falsifying Romney’s Abortion Stance, Again.” FactCheck.org. 31 Jul 2012.

F.B.I. Forcible Rape. Accessed 26 Sep 2014.

The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Statutory Rape. Accessed 26 Sep 2014.

Govtrack.us. Virginia’s 10th Congressional District. Accessed 26 Sep 2014.

Herz, Nathaniel. “Debate Highlights Clash Between Begich, GOP Candidates on Social Issues.” Alaska Dispatch News. 4 Aug 2014.

Jackson, Brooks. “Another Abortion Falsehood from Obama’s ‘Truth Team.’” FactCheck.org. 23 Aug 2012.

Kopsa, Andy. “State-Sanctioned Rape: Trans-Vaginal Ultrasound Laws in Virginia, Texas, and Iowa.” RH Reality Check. 15 Feb 2012.

Kumar, Anita. “Virginia House passes ‘personhood’ bill.” Washington Post. 13 Feb 2012.

Leinwand Leger, Donna. “Virginia Scraps Requiring Invasive Pre-Abortion Procedure.” USA Today. 22 Feb 2012.

Marbury v. Madison. 5 U.S. 137. Supreme Court of the U.S. 1803.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. “Personhood.” Accessed 26 Sep 2014.

National Pro-Life Alliance. “Legislatively Overturning Roe v. Wade with a Life at Conception Act.” Accessed 26 Sep 2014.

New Hampshire House. “HB 1679-FN An Act relative to Partial-birth Abortion.” (as passed 27 Jun 2012.)

New Hampshire House. HB 1679, roll call vote #303. 27 Jun 2012.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern PA v. Casey. No. 91-744. 29 Jun 1992.

Powers, Mary, director of the President’s Office, Susan B. Anthony List. Letter to Factcheck.org. 25 Sep 2014.

Robertson, Lori. “A Fight Over Birth Control in Colorado.” FactCheck.org. 15 Aug 2014.

Roe v. Wade. No. 70-18. Supreme Court of the U.S. 22 Jan 1973.

Saad, Lydia. “U.S. Still Split on Abortion: 47% Pro-Choice, 46% Pro-Life.” Gallup Politics. 22 May 2014.

Sanctity of Life.” Office of Sen. Ran Paul. Accessed 26 Sep 2014.

Somashekhar, Sandhya. “Legislative Proposal Puts Abortion Rights Supporters on Alert.” Washington Post. 1 Feb 2011.

U.S. House. “H.R.3, No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.” (as passed by the House 4 May 2011.)

U.S. House. H.R. 3, roll call vote #292. 4 May 2011.

U.S. House. “H.R. 1091, Life at Conception Act.” (as introduced 12 Mar 2013.)

U.S. Senate. “S. 583, A Bill to Implement Equal Protection Under the 14th Article of Amendment to the Constitution for the Right to Life of Each Born and Preborn Human Person.” (as introduced 14 Mar 2013.)

Virginia House. HB 1 floor vote. 14 Feb 2014.

Virginia House. “House Bill NO. 1, A BILL to construe the word “person” under Virginia law, including but not limited to § 8.01-50 of the Code of Virginia, to include unborn children.” (as offered 11 Jan 2012.)

Virginia House. SB 484 floor vote. 22 Feb 2012.

Virginia Senate. “Senate Bill No.  484, Amendment in the Nature of A Substitute.” (as proposed 26 Jan 2012.)

Vozzella, Laura and Anita Kumar. “Nitty-gritty Knocked Va. Abortion Bill Off the Fast Track.” Washington Post. 23 Feb 2012.

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FactChecking the Arkansas Senate Race http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/factchecking-the-arkansas-senate-race/ Fri, 26 Sep 2014 18:15:38 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88457 The Arkansas Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton began for us in June 2013 — just six months into the new Congress — with an article that carried the headline “It’s Groundhog Day for Fact-Checkers.” It hasn’t gotten much better for fact-checkers since then.

The race — which remains a toss-up by virtually all accounts — has been our most fact-checked campaign of the 2014 congressional elections. Here are some of our findings:

Illegal Immigration and Border Security

Claim: Pryor voted “against a border fence.”

Facts: A Cotton campaign ad says Pryor cast three votes “against a border fence.” But that ignores Pryor’s votes for border fencing.

The first of the three votes highlighted in the TV ad came on April 7, 2006, when Congress was considering the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006. Pryor voted against cloture on a Republican immigration bill that focused primarily on border security. His campaign said Pryor feared a bill focused solely on security would have impeded progress on the comprehensive bill. In fact, Pryor several weeks later joined an overwhelming majority to support an amendment to the comprehensive bill that would have increased fencing along the border.

senatebattleSimilarly, the Cotton ad cites Pryor’s July 13, 2006, vote against an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions that would have provided the funding for it: $1.83 billion to construct 370 miles of double-layered fencing and at least 461 miles of vehicle barriers along the border with Mexico. But Pryor and others opposed the amendment because it would have made across-the-board cuts to the rest of the Homeland Security appropriations. Several weeks later, on Aug. 2, 2006, Pryor joined a large, bipartisan majority that voted for $1.83 billion in funding to construct 370 miles of triple-layered fencing, and 461 miles of vehicle barriers along the southwest border.

The third vote was against a 2010 amendment to a supplemental spending bill to provide funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other disaster relief in Haiti and the United States. Pryor’s campaign said he feared the amendment would slow down the progress of the supplemental bill.

Full story: “Cherry-picking Pryor on Border Security,” Aug. 6

Claim: Cotton “voted to cut funding for the border protection.”

Facts: This claim is based on the Pryor campaign’s assumption that Republican Study Committee budget plans, which Cotton supported, would have applied their deep cuts to discretionary spending across-the-board. The budgets, offered as more conservative alternatives to the mainstream Republican House budgets, don’t say that.

The 2014 plan, for example, called for a 22 percent cut in non-defense discretionary spending by fiscal year 2016. If those cuts were applied across-the-board, the Pryor campaign argues, it would mean cutting the border security budget by more than $800 million. The key phrase in the Pryor analysis, though, is “if those cuts were applied across-the-board” — a caveat that is missing in the ad. There is no suggestion of that in the RSC budget. In fact, the plan, a nonbinding budget resolution, is completely silent on the issue of border security funding.

Additionally, there is some evidence that Cotton has made border security a priority in the past, including his co-sponsoring H.R. 2220, the SMART Act of 2013, which would have beefed up security along the southwestern border.

Full story: “More Border Security Spin in Arkansas,” Aug. 8

Claim: Pryor “voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.”

Facts: Actually, what Pryor voted for wouldn’t have paid a penny to any immigrant living in the U.S. illegally.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which made this claim in a TV ad, cited a vote to kill a Republican amendment offered by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada that would have stripped those gaining legal status under the proposed immigration bill of a right they already had. That is, the right of anyone gaining citizenship or legal status to get credit toward future Social Security benefits based on taxes paid while working in the U.S. without legal permission.

To twist a vote to kill Ensign’s measure into a vote to pay benefits to people while they are here illegally is a gross distortion of the facts.

Full story: “Headed for the Hall of Shame,” Aug. 20

Affordable Care Act

Claim: Pryor voted “to give members of Congress special benefits to purchase Obamacare.”

Facts: Pryor voted to continue the same employer payments for health insurance that members of Congress have had for many years — the same as those paid for millions of other federal employees, retirees and their families. This common distortion, used against those who voted for the Affordable Care Act, came from the NRSC.

The vote in question came during the final hours of the partisan maneuvering that resulted in last year’s 16-day government shutdown. In a straight party-line vote, Pryor joined 51 other Democrats (and two independents) to reject a House-passed bill that would have delayed implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate for a full year in return for providing funding to keep the federal government open through Dec. 15. The bill also contained a provision that would strip lawmakers and aides of their long-standing health care benefits.

But there’s nothing “special” about those benefits. The Office of Personnel Management pays an average of 72 percent (but no more than 75 percent) of the private health insurance premiums for federal workers under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, which until this year also covered members of Congress and their staffs. OPM adopted a rule on Oct. 2, 2013, that continued the same employer payments when congressional members and aides moved from the FEHB to the new exchanges.

Full story: “Headed for the Hall of Shame,” Aug. 20

Claim: Pryor’s vote for the Affordable Care Act is responsible for “higher health care costs.”

Facts: Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group responsible for this ad, cites a Forbes story about an analysis from the conservative Manhattan Institute. But the analysis pertains only to the individual market and didn’t adjust for subsidies or increased benefits under the ACA.

The institute concluded that individual market premiums would rise by an average of 49 percent due to the new health care law. But the ad does not mention that it is referring only to those who buy insurance on the individual market. That’s 4 percent of Arkansans. The institute study also did not adjust for the fact that ACA plans have certain minimum benefit requirements that pre-ACA plans did not have to meet. It also did not account for federal subsidies, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would be extended to 80 percent of all those buying exchange plans nationwide.

For most Arkansans— 40 percent of the population —who have their insurance through their workplaces, premiums have gone up 5.9 percent, on average, per year since the law was enacted, while in the five years before the ACA, premiums went up 4.8 percent, on average, per year.

Full story: “Stretching the Truth in Arkansas,” July 21

Social Security

Claim: Pryor “suggested raising the retirement age” for Social Security.

Facts: Pryor suggested raising the retirement age for those who are now teenagers, but an ad run by the conservative group Crossroads GPS uses pictures of elderly Americans to leave the false impression Pryor was talking about seniors who are in or near retirement.

The ad displayed pictures of elderly Americans and a video clip of Pryor speaking the words, “say that they couldn’t get Social Security until they turn 68 or 69.” The full quote from a June 6, 2011, interview with Hope, Arkansas’ KTSS-TV makes it clear that he is referring to “my kids’ generation, teenagers today” when he is talking about raising the retirement age for Social Security.

It’s a technique we’ve seen in political ads many times, when the images on screen leave the false impression that a politician had made proposals that would impact those who are seniors today.

Full story: “More Senior Scare in Arkansas,” Aug. 22

Claim: Cotton wants to “privatize Social Security.”

Facts: Cotton has voiced support for what he calls “a mixture of the traditional system and personal investments accounts.” That’s not the same as privatizing Social Security, as the Pryor campaign claims.

The Cotton website posted a blog item on Oct. 7, 2011, from the National Review Online that quoted Cotton as saying the U.S. should “move to a mixture of the traditional [Social Security] system and personal investments accounts” — similar to what President Bush proposed in 2005. Under Bush’s plan, such personal investment accounts would be voluntary and would supplement the existing Social Security system, not replace it, and not all Social Security funds could be invested in the private accounts, which would be regulated mutual funds. That’s not the same thing as privatizing Social Security, as we’ve said numerous times.

Full story: “Arkansas Race Off to a Misleading Start,” Aug. 9, 2013

Government Spending

Claim: Pryor is responsible for “higher gas and grocery bills.”

Facts: Americans for Prosperity cites three votes cast against domestic drilling to support its claim in a TV ad that Pryor is responsible for higher gasoline prices. All three were for amendments that would have banned drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But a 2008 report by the Energy Information Administration examined the impact of drilling in ANWR and concluded that oil production in that area would not significantly influence world oil prices and warned that there may not be any impact at all.

As for higher grocery bills, AFP cites Pryor’s vote for the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The 2005 Energy Policy Act mandated that specified levels of renewable fuel be blended into gasoline. Pryor’s 2007 vote expanded the requirement for renewable fuel, which increased the demand for ethanol and, in turn, increased prices of livestock and corn products. However, the USDA said in 2008 that the inflated price of corn had very little effect on overall retail food prices.

Full story: “Stretching the Truth in Arkansas,” July 21

Claim: Pryor has voted with President Obama and the Democratic Party 90 percent of the time.

Facts: Cotton accuses Pryor of “toeing the line” for President Obama and the Democratic Party, claiming Pryor voted with them 90 percent of the time. But the party unity figure is wrong (it’s actually 80 percent), and the presidential support figure, although accurate, shows Pryor voted against Obama more than any other Senate Democrat.

The ad cites a Feb. 3 CQ Weekly article. The CQ Weekly analysis shows that in votes where Obama expressed a preferred vote outcome, Pryor opposed him 10 percent of the time — including votes on gun control, border control and one of Obama’s judicial nominees. No Senate Democrat seeking reelection this fall voted against the president’s wishes more often. In terms of the Democratic Party, CQ Weekly found that Pryor bucked the party unity votes nearly 20 percent of the time last year, second among Senate Democrats only to Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Cotton’s voting was actually more reliably Republican than Pryor’s was reliably Democratic. According to CQ Weekly, Cotton voted in accordance with his party 97 percent of the time last year.

Full story: “Pryor’s Prior Partisan Votes,” June 13

Claim: Pryor supported “trillions in debt, including wasting our money on Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere.”

Facts: Club for Growth Action aired a TV ad critical of Pryor’s vote for the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, using it as an example of his support for wasteful spending. But the bridge may never be built, and Pryor’s involvement in the project was minimal, no different than that of most senators.

Funding for two Alaska bridges – the Gravina Bridge and Knik Arm Bridge — was included in a $286.4 billion transportation spending bill in 2005 that was approved by the Senate with 91 votes, including Pryor’s. But Pryor did not sponsor the bill and did not request funding for the bridges, one of which — the Gravina Bridge — was derided by critics as the “Bridge to Nowhere” because it would connect Ketchikan to Gravina Island, which at the time had a population of 50 and an airport.

However, as a result of the controversy, the transportation bill was later revised to remove specific mention of the bridges and instead give that money to the Alaska Department of Transportation with no strings attached. The bill passed 93-1, with Pryor voting for it. The Bridge to Nowhere may never be built as the state considers improving ferry service instead.

Full story: “Arkansas Race Off to a Misleading Start,” Aug. 9, 2013

Medicare

Claim: Cotton “wants to end Medicare’s guarantee, giving billions in profits to insurance companies while costing seniors $6,000 more a year.”

Facts: The Senate Majority PAC has made this claim or something similar in more than one TV ad. But it is an outdated attack based on an old budget plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan in 2011 and supported by Cotton as a candidate that year. The $6,000 figure is also inaccurate.

The Ryan budget plan in 2011 would have radically changed Medicare in the future — for workers now under age 55.  The plan called for new Medicare beneficiaries to purchase private insurance with the help of federal subsidies. An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office at the time indicated that a 65-year-old in 2022 could pay about $6,000 more than he or she would for the year under traditional Medicare.

But Ryan changed this budget plan the next year. Every plan since then would give seniors the option of staying in a traditional Medicare plan or receiving premium-support payments to buy private insurance plans. And he has made other changes to make the premium-support payments more generous. In fact, his latest plan is modeled on an option that a September 2013 CBO report said could produce savings in total health costs. That CBO report also said its 2011 analysis of the Ryan plan was based on assumptions that turned out to be incorrect, making the $6,000 figure both outdated and no longer valid.

Full story: “Disconnecting the Dots in Arkansas,” April 11

Claim: Cotton was “paid handsomely working for insurance companies” before joining Congress.

Facts: Cotton’s supposed experience “working for insurance companies” amounts to consulting work done on behalf of the Federal Housing Administration.

The Senate Majority PAC portrayed Cotton as someone who is trying to help out his buddies in the insurance industry by supporting Ryan’s Medicare proposal. The group points to Cotton’s Facebook “about” page, which says during his time as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. he “advised some of America’s most respected companies on business strategy, operations, finance, and marketing. His industry experience includes agribusiness, health care, oil and gas, food processing, insurance, and aerospace.”

But our reporting found that insurance experience amounted to consulting work done on behalf of the Federal Housing Administration to help its Office of Multifamily Housing Programs better manage its backlog. Any money that McKinsey — where Cotton was a consultant — made from the FHA project would have ultimately come from the federal government, not from private insurance companies. And so, we concluded, the insinuation that Cotton’s time at McKinsey gave him ties to the insurance industry — that are now influencing his views on Medicare — was simply misplaced.

Full story: “Disconnecting the Dots in Arkansas,” April 11

Claim: Cotton backed a plan that could “cost seniors up to $1,700 more a year.”

Facts: The $1,700 figure, used in a Patriot Majority USA ad, refers to Cotton’s support for Ryan’s Medicare proposal and its impact on the prescription drug “doughnut hole.” Most seniors wouldn’t be affected.

The ad says: “Cotton pushed a plan that would undermine Medicare’s guarantee. And could cost seniors up to $1,700 more a year.”

As we’ve written before, the Ryan plan would increase prescription drug costs for some — but not all — seniors because it repeals a provision of the Affordable Care Act that lowered prescription drug costs for some seniors. The Ryan plan would do away with the Affordable Care Act provision that slowly closes the so-called “doughnut hole” coverage gap in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. The $1,700 figure refers to seniors who surpass the gap in coverage. In fact, most do not. In 2013, 12 percent of the 35.7 million seniors with Part D plans received discounts while in the coverage gap, so those seniors would have paid something more under the Ryan plan.

Full story: “More Weak Claims on Cotton’s Insurance Ties,” April 17

Claim: “Cotton’s plan” for Medicare would affect “every senior in Arkansas” and “cut benefits.”

Facts: Similarly, the Pryor campaign attacked Cotton for his support of Ryan’s Medicare plan, but it wouldn’t pertain to those who are now seniors.

Ryan’s plan would not pertain to those 55 and over, and another plan Cotton supported (an alternative offered by the Republican Study Committee) would not pertain to those 60 and older. So, neither plan would affect “every senior in Arkansas.”

As for cutting benefits, Ryan’s plan requires that policies sold on the Medicare exchange include a minimum level of benefits, the actuarial equivalent of traditional Medicare. Critics say seniors may have to settle for fewer benefits if the premium-support subsidies don’t keep up with health care costs. But that’s speculation.

Full story: “Old Medicare Claims in Arkansas Senate Race,” Feb. 21

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of summary articles on key races that could decide control of the U.S. Senate. The Senate is currently controlled by the Democrats.

– The Staff of FactCheck.org

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FlackCheck.org Video: Midterm Deceptions http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/flackcheck-org-video-midterm-deceptions/ Fri, 26 Sep 2014 16:44:58 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88855 FlackCheck.org, our sister website for political literacy, looks at two recent political campaign ads that mislead viewers using common patterns of deception.

One of the TV ads doesn’t tell the whole story about a cut in the pensions of military retirees that never happened. And the other ad uses a quote out of context to make a U.S. Senate candidate look weak on border security.

The following video is based on our articles “Playing Politics with Immigration” and “No Cuts for Military Vets,” which were published on Sept. 17 and Sept. 18, respectively.

]]> ‘Jackpot’ Ad Is a Loser http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/jackpot-ad-is-a-loser/ Thu, 25 Sep 2014 20:34:16 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88802 A new TV ad from a conservative group attacks Rep. Gary Peters’ record as Michigan Lottery commissioner. It’s called “Jackpot,” but there are no winners when the facts are this badly distorted.

The ad says Peters, who was the state commissioner from 2003 to 2007, “outsourced millions in contracts out of state, and even to China.” It displays a map and flag of China to drive home its misleading claim that Peters is “good for jobs in China, not for Michigan.”

The Chinese contract at issue was a $210,000 order for stubby pencils used to fill out lottery cards, and no Michigan jobs were lost because the state’s purchasing director said at the time that no state-based company made such pencils.

The claim about “millions” in out-of-state contracts refers to GTECH, a Rhode Island-based company that has been the state’s lottery operator since 1988 — long before and after Peters’ time as commissioner. And, again, no Michigan jobs were at stake because no Michigan companies competed for this highly specialized work.

Ending Spending Action Fund, a conservative super PAC, has been active in competitive Senate races in three states — Michigan, Georgia and New Hampshire — that could determine which party controls the Senate. In Michigan, Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land are vying to fill the seat now held by retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin.

The ad starts with a spinning slot machine (which the lottery commission does not operate) that displays three identical photos of a smiling Peters.

“If you love outsourcing, Gary Peters’ record is the ultimate jackpot,” the narrator says. “With Peters in charge, the Michigan Lottery outsourced millions in contracts out of state, and even to China, while Michigan had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.”

The ad cites two news stories as sources for the outsourcing claim. The first is a 2005 article from the Detroit News about the state purchasing 6 million pencils from a Chinese manufacturer at the cost of $210,000. “Michigan’s Club Keno lottery players are filling out their bet slips with little red pencils made in China,” the story began. Land cited the same article in a TV ad this summer that claimed “Peters allowed outsourcing a state contract to China” and cautioned that “our money should never be used to put us out of work.”

But the Detroit News story contained an abundance of information that discredits the bogus attempt to link the Chinese contract with Michigan jobs.

Sean Carlson, the state purchasing director, told the paper that “no Michigan jobs were at stake.” He said only one U.S. company bid on the contract, and it wasn’t from Michigan. A top official of the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association explained why, telling the paper there were “probably only six manufacturers of pencils in the U.S.”

It’s also worth noting that the contract saved state taxpayers $90,000.

Detroit News, June 26, 2005: “A lot of thought went into this,” said Sean Carlson, the state’s purchasing director. “Knowing no Michigan jobs were at stake, and the platform of the governor and the state of Michigan is to get more money into the classroom, and clearly there’s a difference in price of about $90,000 here. That’s a teacher or almost two teachers depending on the school district.”

The ad also cites a Feb. 12, 2007, newspaper article in the Coldwater Daily Reporter. That story said the Michigan Lottery generated $688 million for state public schools in fiscal year 2006. The only mention of a contract came at the end of the article when the paper wrote that some state lawmakers wanted the state to consider privatizing the state lottery.

“The Michigan Lottery currently contracts with GTECH, a private company to handle lottery ticket distribution and online lottery games,” the paper said. “GTECH currently receives about 2 percent of the Lottery’s annual sales, which in FY 2006, was about $40 million.”

That supports the ad’s claim about outsourcing “millions in contracts out of state,” but there’s much more to the story. Let’s look at all the facts.

GTECH has been the state’s lottery operator since 1988, so the company already held the contract when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Peters commissioner on April 9, 2003. In June 2003, after Peters was appointed commissioner, the Michigan Lottery exercised an option to extend GTECH’s contract through 2009 in exchange for the company agreeing to operate its keno game in the state.

At the time, GTECH was described by Bloomberg News as “the world’s biggest supplier of lottery systems.” As of Feb. 22, 2003, it operated or supplied services or equipment to 25 of the 39 online lotteries in the United States, according to the company’s annual report filed with the Security and Exchange Commission.

In that annual report, the company said in fiscal year 2003, it had just four “principal competitors” — and none was from Michigan.

GTECH’s primary competitors at the time were: Scientific Games International, which was incorporated in Delaware and based in New York; EssNet, a Swedish firm that was bought by SGI on March 22, 2006; IGT Online Entertainment Systems, which was incorporated and based in Nevada; and International Lottery and Totalizator Systems, a California-based company that was controlled by a Malaysian firm called Berjaya Lottery Management.

GTECH, which was acquired in 2006 by the Italian-based firm Lottomatica, is still Michigan’s lottery vendor and will remain so at least through Jan. 19, 2017.

The ad is correct in saying that “Michigan had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country” when Peters was the lottery commissioner. The state’s unemployment rate from 2003 through 2007 was consistently higher than the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the out-of-state lottery contracts cited in this ad had no bearing on that fact.

– Eugene Kiely

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Hijacking History in Arkansas http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/hijacking-history-in-arkansas/ Wed, 24 Sep 2014 20:41:50 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88741 In a new TV ad, Rep. Tom Cotton tries to rewrite history with the claim that President Obama “hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill.” Food stamp funding has been part of farm bills going back to 1973.

Cotton’s ad seeks to explain the congressman’s vote earlier this year against the farm bill — a vote that bucked the rest of the Arkansas House delegation, all Republicans, and was criticized by the president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, who said he was “disappointed” in Cotton’s vote.

Cotton, who is locked in a tight race to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, frames his vote against the farm bill as an attempt to rein in food stamp spending, and his campaign notes that he supported an earlier House effort to separate food stamps from the farm bill. The Democratic-controlled Senate didn’t go for it, and neither did Obama. But contrary to the ad’s contention, it was House Republicans who were trying to upend congressional precedent, as farm bills going back four decades have included food stamp funding.

In a direct-to-camera appeal from his family’s farm in Dardanelle, Arkansas, Cotton says, “When President Obama hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill, with billions more in spending, I voted no. Career politicians love attaching bad ideas to good ones. Then the bad ideas become law, and you pay for it.”

The first farm bill was enacted in 1933 to give subsidies to farmers amid the Great Depression. And continuously since 1973, farm bills have included funding for food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to the Congressional Research Service. While some argue the arrangement makes pragmatic and thematic sense, it also has been viewed as a way for the legislation to get broad congressional support, appealing to both rural legislators interested in farm assistance and urban legislators interested in securing food assistance for the poor.

The 2008 farm bill — which included SNAP funding — was originally due to expire in 2012, and was extended. So that was the law of the land when in 2013 the Republican-controlled House tried to extricate the food stamp program from the rest of the farm bill. On July 11, 2013, the House passed “farm bill only” legislation, and then two months later passed a food stamp overhaul bill. Both bills passed the House — with Cotton and the rest of the Arkansas congressional delegation supporting them — without a single Democratic vote.

Immediately after the first vote, leaders in the Democratic-controlled Senate, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, made clear they would not consider a farm bill that did not include food stamp funding.

President Obama also released a statement condemning the House bill.

White House, July 12, 2013:  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a cornerstone of our nation’s food assistance safety net and should not be left behind as the rest of the Farm Bill advances. If the President were presented with this bill, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.

And in November 2013, the White House released a 48-page report titled “The Economic Importance of Passing a Comprehensive Food, Farm and Jobs Bill.

That’s how Cotton arrives at his conclusion that Obama “hijacked” the farm bill — even though 40 years of historical precedent were on the side of a comprehensive farm bill that included food aid.

The House and Senate ultimately reached an accord on a farm bill that included SNAP funding. On Jan. 29, the conference report passed the House 251-166, with Cotton among the 63 Republicans who opposed it. While Cotton takes a jab in the ad at “career politicians” who “love attaching bad ideas to good ones,” we note that the bill was supported by Arkansas’ three other congressmen, Eric Crawford, Tim Griffin and Steve Womack — all Republicans.

Cotton is correct that the final farm bill included “billions more in spending.” There was $406 billion in food stamp funding in the 2008 farm bill and an estimated $756 billion in the 2014 farm bill, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Food stamp spending increased in recent years as a result of greater need caused by the Great Recession, and also partly due to liberalizations in both benefits and eligibility under Obama and also under his predecessor. We covered some of those issues in detail back in 2012, when then-GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich accused Obama of being the “food stamp president.”

Over the decades, the percentage of farm bill funding earmarked for food stamps has increased dramatically. Nearly 80 percent of the funding in the 2014 farm bill was for food stamps and nutrition. That’s up from about 55 percent in the 2002 farm bill.

However, it’s also true that the CBO projected the bill would reduce the deficit by $16.6 billion and trim a modest $8 billion in SNAP funding over 10 years compared with what would have happened if the 2008 bill had simply been extended in its entirety.

Cotton wanted more cuts. The stand-alone food stamp bill he supported called for $39 billion in cuts to the program over 10 years. The Senate version of the farm bill would have reduced nutrition spending by $4 billion over the next 10 years.

As we noted, the compromise conference report ultimately agreed to by both chambers included an estimated $8 billion reduction. That reduction was largely a result of a more restrictive provision regarding food benefits tied to heating and cooling allowances. Cotton’s campaign pointed to a Wall Street Journal article that found some states are already “gaming new food-stamp eligibility rules” to get around that provision, and so some of that $8 billion reduction may never be realized. Nonetheless, when Cotton argues that the farm bill was stuffed with “billions more in [food stamp] spending,” that’s true in raw dollars, but not true compared with the amount that was projected to have been spent had the 2008 law simply been extended without changes.

– Robert Farley

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Special Interest Battle in Midwest Races http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/special-interest-battle-in-midwest-races/ Tue, 23 Sep 2014 19:05:56 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88718 Two ads from the conservative Crossroads organizations claim Democratic Senate candidates in Iowa and Michigan who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline are backed by an environmental activist who “stands to profit by blocking Keystone.” That’s based on outdated information on the activist’s former investments.

American Crossroads, a super PAC founded with the help of former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, and Crossroads GPS, its 501(c)(4) sister organization, launched the ads in September against Rep. Bruce Braley in Iowa and Rep. Gary Peters in Michigan, respectively. Both ads imply that the Democrats’ opposition to Keystone came for a price — the support of billionaire Tom Steyer, whose NextGen Climate Action group has opposed Braley’s and Peters’ GOP challengers through political advertising.

The Crossroads groups had spent about $16 million combined as of Sept. 23 on independent expenditures in midterm races, while NextGen had spent about $9 million.

The ads picture Steyer and call him only “a California billionaire.” He, and his group NextGen Climate Action, do oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed oil pipeline of more than 1,000 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska, for environmental reasons. (See our March 10 story “Pipeline Primer” for a breakdown of the competing claims about the pipeline’s impact on jobs and climate.)

The ads imply that Braley and Peters are doing what Steyer wants — oppose the pipeline project — because he’s spending millions to defeat their opponents. The ad against Braley says the congressman is “on the side of billionaire special interests, not Iowa workers.” The spot against Peters says he sided with Steyer on Keystone and “now, that billionaire is spending big bucks to help Peters’ campaign.”

It’s correct, as the Braley ad says, that the congressman voiced support for the pipeline in 2012 and has been opposed to it since at least May 2013, when he voted against authorizing the northern leg of the Keystone XL project. But in either case, there’s no evidence presented of such a quid pro quo. Braley says he’s opposed to the project because it threatens renewable energy jobs in Iowa and because there’s no guarantee the oil transported by the pipeline would stay in the United States. Peters, who also voted against the Keystone XL project in May 2013, has questioned the environmental effects, and proposed an amendment to require an investigation of the impact of pet coke, an oil byproduct that became an issue in Detroit when piles of it were stored along the river.

The ads claim Steyer has a financial motive for opposing the pipeline. “Peters sided with a California billionaire who could profit if the pipeline is blocked,” says one ad. “Now, a California billionaire who stands to profit by blocking Keystone is spending big to help Braley’s campaign,” says the other.

Would Steyer, a former hedge fund owner, profit if the pipeline were blocked? We contacted the spokesman for Crossroads to ask for support for the claim but didn’t receive a response. The groups aren’t the first, however, to question Steyer’s financial motives: Republican Sen. David Vitter did so in 2013. But the claim is now based on outdated information about the hedge fund’s investment in a company that owns an alternative pipeline.

Steyer gave up ownership of Farallon Capital Management at the end of 2012 to pursue a new career in environmental activism. (He has called the switch from billionaire businessman to activism his “Paul on the road to Damascus” moment.) Farallon invested in energy companies, among other sectors, including oil, gas and coal companies. It invested hundreds of millions in an oil and gas company called Nexen, and it invested in Kinder Morgan, an energy company that owns a pipeline that runs from Canadian tar sands to Pacific ports. A Washington Post profile of Steyer published in June said that the Kinder Morgan pipeline would be an alternative to Keystone if the latter project didn’t come to fruition, according to industry analysts.

According to the Post report, Steyer instructed Farallon to divest his personal holdings of money in tar sands and coal when he left the company. A year later, in 2013, he said such divestments should also include oil and natural gas. Steyer spokeswoman Heather Wong told the Post: “[S]ince directing Farallon to divest the coal and tar sands holdings, Tom expanded the divestment directive to include all of his fossil fuel energy holdings and as of this month he will be divested out of fossil fuels altogether.”

After he faced criticism for the Kinder Morgan investment, he pledged in 2013 to donate any profits he had received from it to a charity, namely wildfire victims in the United States. In June 2014, he announced he and his wife would put $2 million in a new Climate Disaster Relief Fund to help victims of extreme weather including wildfires. His spokeswoman told the Post that his profits from Kinder Morgan were valued at around $1.7 million.

The spokeswoman also said that Farallon was no longer invested in Kinder Morgan, which can be confirmed through the fund’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

So, in the not-too-distant past — 2012 — Steyer could have stood to profit if the Keystone pipeline project had been blocked. But since then, he has left the investment fund and pledged any profits from the rival-pipeline company to a newly created charity. More important, his old hedge fund no longer has any holdings in that pipeline company.

As for the groups behind these ads, American Crossroads has received funding from oil companies. We don’t know whether Crossroads GPS has received such financial backing, since it does not have to disclose its donors.

– Lori Robertson

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Alaska’s Pension Fight http://www.factcheck.org/2014/09/alaskas-pension-fight/ Fri, 19 Sep 2014 22:45:57 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88565 The Alaska Senate candidates exaggerate the impact of a $500 million settlement that Republican Dan Sullivan reached as state attorney general in 2010.

The Alaska Retirement Management Board sued its actuarial firm in December 2007 for erroneous calculations that the board claimed caused the state to underfund its pension system by $2.8 billion. The state sought $2.8 billion in damages and settled in June 2010 for $500 million.

Sullivan and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Mark Begich, have put a misleading spin on the settlement in recent TV ads:

  • Sullivan’s ad features a teacher who says her pension “took a big hit” in the “financial crisis” and credits Sullivan for “forcing a Wall Street firm to pay for their malpractice.” The two events are unrelated. The lawsuit accused the firm of an actuarial error in 2002 — six years before the financial crisis occurred in 2008.
  • The teacher also boasts that Sullivan stood up for “every Alaska teacher” by forcing the firm to return “almost half a billion dollars into the retirement fund for Alaskans.” But the Teachers’ Retirement System received only $44 million of the $500 million.
  • A Begich ad says Sullivan’s settlement is “putting the permanent fund at risk,” suggesting every resident who receives a dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund may have to pay for Sullivan’s actions. The state this year added $3 billion to its pension system without tapping into the permanent fund. Also, there are other factors — not just the actuarial errors — that caused the pension shortfall.

The Alaska Senate race — one of several highly competitive elections that could decide control of the Senate — has focused of late on Sullivan’s record as attorney general. Earlier this month, we wrote about a Begich TV ad that claimed Sullivan let a sex offender now accused of murder get off with a “light” sentence. The ad, which was pulled because of complaints by the victims’ families, exaggerated Sullivan’s role in mistakes that were made that resulted in a shorter sentence than could have been handed down.

Standing up for Teachers?

This time it’s Sullivan who made an issue of his experience as attorney general when he aired a TV ad called “Alaska’s Teachers.” The ad, which aired from Sept. 4 to Sept. 13, features Anchorage teacher Leslie Moore, who leaves the false impression that the Teachers’ Retirement System was victimized by a “Wall Street firm” during the recent financial crisis.

“After the financial crisis, my pension took a big hit. It was a difficult time for all of Alaska’s teachers,” Moore says. “But Attorney General Dan Sullivan fought back, forcing a Wall Street firm to pay for their malpractice – returning almost half a billion dollars into the retirement fund for Alaskans. Dan Sullivan stood up for me and every Alaska teacher.”

The fact is that the lawsuit had nothing to do with the recent financial crisis, and the teachers’ fund got far less from the $500 million settlement than suggested by the ad.

Here are the facts: The Alaska Retirement Management Board filed a negligence suit in December 2007 against Mercer — a subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Companies — for $1.8 billion in damages. (The damages amount was later increased to $2.8 billion.) Mercer was the state’s longtime actuarial firm for both the Teachers’ Retirement System and the Public Employees Retirement System and, as such, was responsible for determining assets and liabilities and calculating the state obligation to adequately fund the pension accounts.

The lawsuit, as the New York Times explained in a 2009 story, accused Mercer of making errors in the 2002 report, understating the pension fund liabilities by as much as $1 billion.

New York Times, Dec. 19, 2009: The error was compounded in 2003 because Mercer continued to use an artificially low number for pre-retirement-aged beneficiaries. If the firm had corrected the earlier mistake, an actuary said in a deposition, “It would have been difficult to explain.”

Because of the errors and cover-up, the lawsuit said, Mercer underreported by more than $2.8 billion the contributions required to fund the plans.

So, the alleged mistakes were made in 2002 and 2003 — at least five years before the financial crisis caused steep stock market losses that are still fresh in voters’ minds. Stock prices fell 50 percent from October 2007 to March 2009, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Sullivan, who was nominated attorney general in June 2009, settled the suit on June 11, 2010, for $500 million, as the ad states, about a month before the trial was supposed to start. Despite the impression left by the ad, the teachers’ fund got a relatively small percentage of the $500 million.

After court costs and legal fees, the pension funds received $403 million. Most of that money — $359 million — went to the Public Employees Retirement System. The teachers’ fund received only $44 million.

Response Ads

The NEA Advocacy Fund, which is the super PAC of the National Education Association, and the Begich campaign responded to Sullivan’s ad with ads of their own.

The NEA fund went up with an ad on Sept. 10 that expressed the opinion that Sullivan “sold Alaska’s teachers out.” The ad, which is still on the air, says, “Instead of recovering what could have been nearly $3 billion, he cut a deal for just pennies on the dollar.” The text on the screen shows “20 cents on the dollar.”

Whether the deal was good or bad for the state’s retirement funds is a matter of opinion, so we won’t take a position on that. However, the Begich campaign goes too far in its ad, which also accuses Sullivan of cutting a bad deal.

The Begich ad, called “Reprise,” deals largely with the differences between Begich and President Obama. But at one point in the ad, the narrator says Sullivan “let Alaska’s pension fund get ripped off by a New York financial firm, putting the permanent fund at risk.”

We should first note that “ripped off” implies that Mercer stole money from the fund. That was not the case.

But, more to the point, the ad suggests that all residents — not just teachers and public employees — may have to pay for Sullivan’s settlement when it claims that his decision to settle is “putting the permanent fund at risk.” That’s an exaggeration.

Gov. Sean Parnell in June signed legislation that transferred $3 billion from the state’s rainy day fund, known as the Constitution Budget Reserve, into the state’s pension funds. In signing the legislation, Parnell said the infusion of cash will allow the state to reduce future annual pension payments and help preserve the state’s AAA bond rating. Fitch Rating indeed affirmed the state’s AAA rating for its general obligation bonds on Aug. 11.

Parnell notably did not tap the Alaska Permanent Fund. And there was no legislation proposing to take money from the permanent fund to cover pension costs, according to Laura Achee, the director of communications for the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation. Why? The permanent fund, which is funded with lease agreements and royalties received from production of oil, gas and other minerals, will pay a dividend of $1,844 this year to every Alaska resident who lived in the state all of last year. It would be politically unpopular to divert money from the permanent fund and reduce future dividends.

Yes, it’s legally possible that the permanent fund can be used this way, and some have suggested that it may need to happen in the future. The Begich campaign points to some speculative statements — including one from Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze, who in April said the state would have no choice but to use the permanent fund if it was the only available funding, since the state is constitutionally obligated to meet its pension payments. But such speculation has existed for years.

At a legislative hearing in 2005, Larry Semmens, the then-finance director for the city of Kenai, suggested using the permanent fund to reduce the state’s unfunded pension liabilities. The meeting minutes paraphrased him as saying, “There will be little public support to use the permanent fund to pay down the debt but it may make sense in this case.” It didn’t happen.

In 1999, then-Gov. Tony Knowles proposed using the permanent fund to close a budget gap. Although he didn’t need it, Knowles sought voter approval in a nonbinding referendum, because, as the Associated Press wrote, “touching the permanent fund is widely considered political suicide.” A whopping 83 percent voted against using the permanent fund to balance the budget. A post-election poll showed that half of the voters “would never agree to use the Permanent Fund money for government,” according to a 2012 book titled “Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend: Examining its Suitability as a Model.”

Achee told us it is still considered “the third rail of Alaska politics” to use the fund for anything other than dividends or expenses related to the fund’s management.

Although the fund ended fiscal year 2014 with a balance of $51.2 billion, Achee said only $6.2 billion of that was available to state legislators after paying the 2014 dividend and accounting for the effect of inflation on the fund’s principal (see “end assigned balance” for fiscal year 2014). But, she said, “it could be potentially career-ending for an elected official to vote to spend from the earnings of the permanent fund.”

The 2012 book on the permanent fund noted that the state spent $210 million from the APF in fiscal year 2010 to cover expenses related to the fund that were once covered by the general budget — such as Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation’s operating costs, contract investment managers and investment management fees. The fund is also used to help pay for inmates’ health care “based on the number of inmates ineligible to receive a Permanent Fund dividend,” according to a House Finance Committee budget document. Inmates are not eligible for a dividend.

If the $210 million had been paid with general funds, instead of permanent funds, the individual dividend for 2010 “would have increased by $316 (by 25 percent), to $1,597,” the book said.

Even if the fund is tapped for pension costs in the future, Sullivan’s settlement wouldn’t be the sole or even primary reason for such a “raid,” as the Begich campaign calls it.

The ad cites an Alaska Dispatch News article from April 18, 2014, as evidence that Sullivan’s settlement is “putting the permanent fund at risk.” That’s the article that included a quote from Stoltze, the GOP state legislator, speculating about the permanent fund. At the time, the state’s unfunded pension liability was about $12 billion — far more than the $2.3 billion difference between the lawsuit and the settlement — and the Legislature was considering Parnell’s $3 billion cash infusion plan. The article blamed the $12 billion in unfunded liabilities on legislative inaction — not on the $500 million settlement. “Alaska leaders have not dealt with the state’s growing retirement debts, making minimum payments in years of oil-fueled surplus so they could have more money available for more popular programs,” the article said.

There was also the matter of the stock market collapse in 2008 — six years after the actuarial errors were made. In a segment last year on Parnell’s $3 billion pension rescue plan, Alaska Public Radio noted that “the retirement burden really grew in 2008, when the state lost a fifth of the money it had saved because of the recession.”

In announcing the settlement, Sullivan also said the unfunded liabilities were not caused just by the funds’ actuarial firm. “The unfunded liabilities were caused by stock market declines, significant increases in health care costs and, as alleged by the ARM Board, Mercer’s negligence,” the June 11, 2010, press release said.

We take no position on Sullivan’s decision to settle the case before it went to trial. There is no way to know if the state could have done better if the case went to trial, or whether Sullivan could have negotiated a better deal.

But the facts show the ads by both candidates exaggerate the impact of the $500 million settlement on the lives of teachers and all Alaskans.

– Eugene Kiely

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