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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Inflated Claims in Nebraska’s GOP Senate Primary

A Club for Growth Action TV ad in Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary exaggerates spending under state Attorney General Jon Bruning. It claims Bruning has “nearly doubled” his office’s budget. But the increase — 81 percent from 2003 to 2011 — doesn’t account for inflation or the fact that the AG’s office now pays to defend suits filed against all state agencies, rather than having individual agencies cover the cost. The budget figure also includes a 516 percent increase in federal funds, largely to fight Medicaid fraud.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the office’s total budget — including federal funds — rose 49 percent over eight years. As for how Bruning spent state taxes, we found that his office’s general fund — which is funded by state taxes, primarily sales and income taxes — was up 13 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars in eight years, from fiscal years 2003 to 2011.

The TV ad also claims that Bruning “praised the Obama stimulus program” and displays a quote of the attorney general saying “the additional support is important.” That’s misleading. The quote was from a statement welcoming stimulus funding for police officers in the state. It was not in support of the entire $814 billion stimulus program.

Spending ‘Nearly Doubled’?

The headlines in this state’s Senate race have been dominated by Democrats — beginning with Sen. Ben Nelson’s decision to retire and then former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s decision to run for his old seat after living in New York for 10 years. But the Cook Political Report, which handicaps political races, says the Republicans are “likely” to pick up this seat from the Democrats. That means the winner of the May 15 GOP primary could very well be the state’s next senator.

Club for Growth has taken an interest in the primary, which pits Bruning against his predecessor, former Attorney General Don Stenberg, as well as state Sen. Deb Fischer. Bruning has been endorsed by the Tea Party Express, and Stenberg by Freedom Works. The conservative Club for Growth has endorsed Stenberg, and its super PAC went on the air April 11 with a TV ad titled “Spending” that attacks Bruning for being a big spender.

The TV ad says Bruning “nearly doubled” his office’s budget since he took office in January 2003, and it shows him standing behind a stack of U.S. bills as a spending meter keeps flipping until it reaches 81 percent. The group provided us with budget figures that show Bruning has increased his office’s total budget 81 percent from 2003 to 2010. That’s true, but misleading on several fronts — beginning with the simple fact that when Bruning took office, the state changed how it pays for lawsuits filed against state agencies. The Attorney General’s Office now picks up the tab using in-house lawyers, rather than outside counsel, to save the state money.

The Omaha World-Herald explained how the change came about in a story that compared the spending habits of Bruning and Stenberg as the state’s attorney general:

World-Herald, Sept. 30, 2011: When Bruning came to office, then-Gov. Mike Johanns asked him to take back the lawsuits that had been farmed out to other agencies. Bruning did so, and now his budget rises and falls with each major lawsuit filed against the state. ….

Johanns, a fellow Republican, had urged Bruning to assume control over all major lawsuits. Johanns told The World-Herald he believed it would be cheaper if state attorneys managed the cases rather than farming them out to expensive law firms and to other state agencies.

“I visited with Bruning on a number of different occasions,” said Johanns, who said he is “neutral” in the Senate race. “We were looking at ways to save money, and I told him it would be great if we could handle some of this work internally.”

But that’s not all. The Club for Growth Action ad compared the growth in total spending without adjusting for inflation.

We looked at it both ways and found that indeed the total budget increased 81 percent, rising from $5.3 million in fiscal year 2003 (page 57) to $9.6 million in fiscal year 2011 (page 53). But the Consumer Price Index rose 23 percent during that time — from 183.9 in July 2003, the start of the state’s fiscal year, to 225.7 in June 2011, the end of the most recent fiscal year. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the office’s total budget rose 49 percent.

And not all of that money came from state taxes. The general fund — which is funded through state taxes, primarily sales and income taxes — provided $5.6 million to the Attorney General’s Office in 2011, up from $4 million in 2003. That’s an increase of 38 percent. But when adjusted for inflation, the AG’s general fund expenditures rose just 13 percent — which is below the rate of inflation.

The biggest jump in spending under Bruning occurred in the federal fund. It rose from $210,000 in 2003 to $1.3 million in 2011 — a 516 percent increase (404 percent, when adjusted for inflation). There was also an increase, although not as dramatic, in fees. The World-Herald attributed the rise in spending of federal funds largely to a crackdown on Medicaid fraud initiated by the state Legislature in 2006:

World-Herald, Sept. 30, 2011: The growth in the federal and fee parts of Bruning’s budget can be attributed, in large part, to his office collecting more in federal dollars to fight Medicaid fraud and collecting more in fees from a drunken-driving program.

About half of the federal dollars collected by Bruning’s office are used to pay for a Medicaid fraud unit state lawmakers adopted in 2006. In addition, a license revocation procedure for drunken drivers has grown dramatically during Bruning’s tenure, raising more than a half million in fees to pay the attorney general’s program expenses.

This dispute between Bruning and Stenberg over spending by the Attorney General’s Office dates to at least 2003, when Bruning took over the office from Stenberg. Bruning told the state Legislature’s Appropriations Committee in March 2003 that the office under Stenberg was chronically underfunded and its in-house lawyers were underpaid, while the state wasted money on outside counsel. That’s according to a March 4, 2003, story in the World-Herald.

Praising Obama’s Stimulus, Raising Car Fees?

The ad also seeks to portray Bruning as a supporter of President Obama’s stimulus, although there is little in the record to support such a broad claim.

The TV ad says that “Bruning praised the Obama stimulus program,” flashing a Bruning quote on the screen that reads, “The additional support is important.” The quote is displayed as a full quote, not the partial quote that it is. Viewers may come away with the impression that Bruning supported the entire $814 billion program. But Bruning was only commenting on stimulus funding that provided additional police officers for the state of Nebraska. His quote appeared in a World-Herald story on the addition of 20 police officers for Omaha.

World-Herald, July 29, 2009: Nebraska’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Jon Bruning, said, “Nebraska has some of the best law enforcement in the country. The additional support is important to maintain the quality of life we enjoy in our state.”

Bruning has had little else to say about the stimulus. We did a search of the newspaper database Nexis and found no other examples where Bruning spoke either for or against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, as it is formally known. The only specific reference to the stimulus on the Attorney General’s website is a warning that he issued to Nebraskans to “watch out for economic stimulus scams.”

Bruning has been outspoken, however, on the president’s health care law. He’s among a group of Republican attorneys general who have jointly sued to have the federal law overturned. On that, the Club for Growth and Bruning agree. The club features a video of Bruning speaking about “Obamacare” on its website.

The TV ad ends with the claim that “Bruning even called on the Legislature to raise car fees so he could spend more.” That’s true. Just weeks after taking office, Bruning requested a $2 increase in vehicle title fees, saying it was needed to “replace federal grant funds for drug prosecution that are in jeopardy and help fund seven additional methamphetamine prosecutors in the Attorney General’s office,” according to a press release from Bruning’s office.

The request, however, was denied and the increase did not happen.

— Eugene Kiely