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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Stretching the Truth in Nebraska

Club for Growth Action is out with another attack ad on Republican Senate candidate Jon Bruning, this time stretching to paint him as a “big taxer.” Earlier this month, the group exaggerated Nebraska Attorney General Bruning’s spending record.

The latest ad says Bruning “once called for higher gas taxes and Social Security taxes.” But it doesn’t mention that he did so back in 1992 in an opinion piece in the University of Nebraska’s Daily Nebraskan, when Bruning was a second-year law student and 23 years old.

Bruning is running against Don Stenberg, his predecessor as attorney general, and state Sen. Deb Fischer for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Democrat Ben Nelson. Club for Growth has endorsed Stenberg.

It’s true that Bruning “once called for higher gas taxes and Social Security taxes” (on benefits, not payroll taxes), but that was a long time ago, when Bruning was a young law school student. His Oct. 9, 1992, Daily Nebraskan opinion piece — which Club for Growth sent to us as backup for the claim — said that the nation had to make “hard choices” in order to do something about the $4 trillion debt. Bruning said that the Congressional Budget Office had published several debt-reduction suggestions, “many of which make excellent sense. None would be popular or easy, but all are practical solutions to begin chipping away at a difficult problem.” Among several ideas, he said taxes could be increased on gasoline or on the Social Security benefits received by those in the top 18 percent of the income scale.

The price for U.S. regular gasoline was $1.12 per gallon the week Bruning’s piece was published. Bruning wrote that every 10-cent increase in the gasoline tax would raise $10 billion. He said while “Americans would most certainly cry foul … we still would have the cheapest gasoline in the world.” He said a 50-cent increase would raise $50 billion and “would probably cost each driver about $300 a year.”

Social Security Benefits

On Social Security, benefits had been subject to federal income tax since 1983 for those with income of $25,000 for a single person, or $32,000 for a couple filing jointly, under legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan. But even for those relatively higher-income beneficiaries, only 50 percent of their benefits were taxed.

Bruning wrote that by taxing 85 percent of that group’s benefits, “$30 billion could be raised within five years” while affecting only the top 18 percent of beneficiaries. And a year later, Congress passed Bill Clinton’s deficit-reduction bill, which did indeed make 85 percent of Social Security benefits taxable, though only for those making a total of $34,000 for an individual or $44,000 for a couple filing jointly.

Sales Tax

The ad also says that “as state senator, Bruning voted to raise our sales tax,” and Club for Growth Action points to a May 3, 2001, article in the Omaha World-Herald that did indeed say Bruning voted to increase the state sales tax in order to pay for a raise for teachers. The bill easily passed on a 31-8 vote, but the measure ultimately failed. The World-Herald reported that Bruning and another state senator “said they voted for the bill because they hope something better will be worked out later.”

In 2002, Bruning also supported raising the Nebraska sales tax, but in doing so, opposed an increase in income taxes. A debate on tax increases came about when the state faced a $226 million budget shortfall in 2002. The state Legislature was considering a proposal to raise income taxes by 2.25 percent and expand the state sales tax to some businesses that had been exempt. Bruning said that he couldn’t support both increases and that raising the sales tax would be best. However, the World-Herald reported that “Bruning still would prefer to go with higher cigarette taxes,” an approach that was also favored by then-Gov. Mike Johanns, a Republican.

Ultimately, the Legislature passed a mix of sales, income and cigarette tax increases to help close the budget gap, overriding Johanns’ veto to do so. Bruning voted against the veto override, which garnered just enough votes to pass.

The Club for Growth Action TV spot makes a quick reference to the group’s old claims — that Bruning “praised the Obama stimulus and has a big spending record.” As we wrote in an April 11 piece, Bruning said stimulus funding for police officers “is important.” He didn’t praise the entire $814 billion stimulus. And Bruning’s spending record was exaggerated by Club for Growth Action by not accounting for inflation, an increase in federal funds, and a change in protocol that now has the AG’s office paying to defend lawsuits filed against all state agencies.

Voters can judge for themselves whether Bruning’s past support for a higher sales taxes — or his long-ago support for higher taxes on gasoline and Social Security benefits for those at the top — makes him a “big taxer,” as the ad says. But the ad doesn’t give voters the whole story.

— Lori Robertson