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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Crossroads Changes Plane False Attack

After yanking an ad with a false claim off the air in North Dakota, Crossroads GPS is back with an amended version that is technically accurate, but still grossly misleading.

The original ad claimed that Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp “spent taxpayer dollars on private planes” while she was the state’s attorney general. That wasn’t true. The planes were donated by the federal government.

The amended version, which started running Aug. 10, says she “allowed staff to fly a taxpayer-funded plane.” That’s true, as far as it goes. But, of course, the two surplus military aircraft had been paid for by federal taxpayers, not just North Dakotans. One of the two was used for spare parts, and there’s no evidence the staff made personal or improper use of the remaining plane. It was for use in supporting drug enforcement activities, according to the only news account that Crossroads GPS cited as supporting evidence.

Original ad:

Revised ad:

In 1993, Heitkamp’s attorney general’s office acquired two T-42 Beechcraft Barons from the U.S. Department of Defense. The department had announced in 1992 that it would be making more than 100 aircraft available to state government agencies.

One of the planes North Dakota obtained was to be used for the state’s drug enforcement initiatives such as identifying marijuana fields from the air and transporting drug and dog teams. The other would be disassembled and used to provide spare parts. The four-seat, 1965 model planes were valued at $102,000 each.

However, the Bismarck Tribune article cited in the Crossroads ad noted that Heitkamp and another official from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation said that “little if no state expenditures will be required because the planes are being provided free of charge and federal grant programs are paying for the costs of insurance, fuel and pilot training.”

The paper also reported that the National Guard had agreed to house and service the plane, and that a staffer from the attorney general’s office would serve as the pilot.

“If at some point, we find this is not cost effective, we can divest ourselves of the airplane,” Heitkamp was reported as saying at the time. “Rumors of this being an albatross around the state’s neck are ridiculous.”

Other Attacks

The ad also claims that Heitkamp “supports higher taxes on North Dakota small businesses.” That’s a reference to the federal health care law, also known as the Affordable Care Act.

Heitkamp does support the law, but has said that she doesn’t think that it is perfect. In a statement to the Fargo Forum in March, Heitkamp said that there are “some good things in the health care law that make sense” and that there are some problems with it “like the federal mandate requiring you to buy health insurance and way too much red tape for small businesses.”

The law does require some employers to provide health insurance for their employees or pay a penalty. But as we’ve said before, businesses with fewer than 50 workers are exempt from the requirement to provide coverage. And some small businesses with fewer than 25 employees are already getting tax credits under the new law to help defray the cost of covering workers.

The ad’s other claims — that Heitkamp “supported new taxes on car insurance and energy” and “awarded her staff a 30 percent pay raise” — are technically accurate, but could also use some explanation.

Heitkamp did support a bill that would have taxed car and truck insurance to help fund a trust to support law enforcement training programs that police officers and sheriffs said were inadequate, according to the Bismarck Tribune. The tax would have been 65 cents for every $100 of purchased insurance, but the legislation was voted down by the state House.

And Heitkamp supported a bill that the state Legislature passed in 1999, replacing the state’s tax on the energy value of out-of-state coal with a 75-cent sales tax on every ton of imported coal. Rep. Rick Berg, who is Heitkamp’s Republican opponent for the Senate seat, also supported the legislation. He joined 95 other state House members in voting for the bill, which passed unanimously.

She also raised salaries for some members of her staff by as much as 30 percent, according to a Grand Forks Herald report. The paper reported Heitkamp saying that she had “absolutely no regrets” about the raises which she argued were needed to increase staff retention in the department and close a pay gap between her staff members and other state attorneys.

— D’Angelo Gore