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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Christie vs. Paul and the Facts

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie conflated statistics when he claimed Sen. Rand Paul’s “pork-barrel spending” is the reason Kentucky receives more federal funds than New Jersey for every tax dollar it sends to Washington. The figures cited by Christie are affected very little by pork-barrel spending.

Moreover, Senate Republicans have imposed a voluntary ban on earmarks — otherwise known as pork-barrel spending — since the Kentucky senator took office in 2011. So Paul hasn’t brought any of the traditional pork-barrel spending to Kentucky.

Paul also added some confusion to the issue when he seemed to suggest that Kentucky’s ratio was the result of funding for two military bases. Like earmarks, that spending has relatively little to do with Kentucky’s status as a “receiver” state. Besides, while there are two military bases in Kentucky, there are more than that in New Jersey.

The public jousting by two Republicans who are considered possible 2016 presidential candidates made lots of headlines. Christie took umbrage to Paul’s criticism of Hurricane Sandy aid. Paul said it should have been offset with cuts from foreign aid.

Here’s an abbreviated recap of some of the back-and-forth:

Christie, July 30: So if Senator Paul wants to start looking at where he’s going to cut spending to afford defense, maybe he should start looking at cutting the pork-barrel spending that he brings home to Kentucky, at $1.51 for every dollar and not look at New Jersey, where we get 61 cents for every dollar.

Paul, July 30: This is the king of bacon talking about bacon. You know, we have two military bases in Kentucky, and is Governor Christie recommending that we shut down our military bases? He wants to be this great champion of national defense. What does he want to do? Shut down military bases in Kentucky? No, what this debate really is about is that in order to have enough money for national defense — which I think is a priority for the government — you have to be willing to cut spending in other places, and Governor Christie and others have been part of this “gimme gimme gimme.” Gimme all this money.

Christie’s press office did not return our call, but it is clear that Christie was referring to a 2007 report from the Tax Foundation that concluded Kentucky received $1.51 in federal outlays for every $1 the state’s taxpayers sent to Washington (ranking Kentucky 9th). New Jersey came in dead last among 50 states, after receiving 61 cents in outlays per tax dollar, the report found.

The 2007 report, using 2005 data, is the latest available. The Tax Foundation put it together to show the uneven distribution of federal spending under a progressive tax system. The Tax Foundation used the Consolidated Federal Funds Report for Fiscal Year 2005, and that report has a chart (figure 3) that shows total federal expenditures in fiscal 2005 were about $2.3 trillion. About half of that went for Social Security benefits, disability payments and medical assistance — including Medicare and Medicaid. Hardly pork.

In fact, the ratios were almost completely unaffected by so-called pork-barrel spending. That’s because while pork-barrel spending gets a lot of attention, it makes up a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget.

In 2010, for example, Kentucky got 189 earmarks totaling $231 million, according to data from Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks federal earmarks. That’s less than the $297 million New Jersey got (though Kentucky fared better on a per capita basis — $53.63 compared with New Jersey’s $34.11.) Paul wasn’t in the Senate that year, which was the last time appropriations bills contained earmarks.

So for Christie to suggest some sort of relationship between pork-barrel spending and the ratio of federal outlays versus federal taxes paid is absurd.

In 2005, the year used in the statistic cited by Christie, Kentuckians paid $22 billion in federal taxes and received $34.6 billion in federal spending. The amount received by Kentucky in earmarks in 2010 was $231 million. So earmarks represent well less than 1 percent of the federal monies received in Kentucky.

“Are pork-barrel spending and military bases the main issue here? Well, no,” Richard Morrison of the Tax Foundation told us via email. “The ratio of taxes paid vs. federal spending received has much more to do with average incomes in each state. Because of the progressive nature of the federal income tax, states with higher average incomes are generally going to end up on the ‘donor state’ side of the ledger, with the less affluent states on the recipient side. As long as we have a progressive income tax (and means-tested federal spending programs directed at low-income households) this relationship is going to hold.”

It’s even more absurd to suggest that Kentucky gets more money than New Jersey because of “the pork-barrel spending that [Paul] brings home to Kentucky.” Paul took office in January 2011, and the Senate Appropriations Committee on Feb. 1, 2011, announced an earmark ban covering fiscal years 2011 and 2012. The following year, the ban was extended to 2013, and it was extended yet again through 2014.

Christie raises a legitimate issue about the large disparities in the bang for the buck provided to states by the federal government, but it has nothing to do with pork-barrel spending, as he suggested.

— Robert Farley