A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Competing Attack Ads in Florida Miss Mark

Competing attack ads ask what voters “really know” about Florida congressional candidates Alex Sink and David Jolly. But don’t count on the ads to clear things up, as both rely on misleading claims.

An ad from the Sink campaign attacks Jolly’s lobbying past, but uses thinly connected facts and innuendo in an attempt to tie Jolly to unpopular plans to radically change Social Security and Medicare.

  • The ad falsely claims Jolly “lobbied for a group committed to privatizing Social Security.” Jolly lobbied for a group whose CEO personally supported a plan to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in a private account. But the group took no formal position on the plan and did not lobby for it. Besides, the proposed option is not the same as privatizing Social Security.
  • The Sink campaign also falsely claims Jolly “lobbied on a plan to turn Medicare into a costly voucher program.” Jolly attended a meeting with Rep. Paul Ryan on a GOP budget that, among many other things, included Medicare subsidies that critics have called vouchers. But the Sink campaign provided no evidence that Jolly lobbied in support of the Medicare plan at that meeting.

An ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, claims Sink supported “higher property taxes” and “higher sales taxes.” She did neither.

  • Sink did not seek to raise property taxes; she opposed a property tax cut and efforts to expand the homestead exemption to others. There’s a difference. Nobody’s property taxes would have gone higher if Sink had her way.
  • Sink also did not propose an across-the-board sales tax increase either, as the ad implies. Rather, she advocated the review and possible elimination of some sales tax exemptions, which included exemptions for bottled water, charter fishing trips and Super Bowl tickets. But she didn’t propose making the sales tax “higher.”

The ad also clouds the truth with a claim that Sink supports the Affordable Care Act  “even though 300,000 Floridians could lose their health insurance plans because of it.”

The carefully worded NRCC ad tiptoes along the line of the defensible by saying 300,000 Floridians could lose their health insurance plans. In the summer of 2015, 300,000 Floridians who currently buy their own insurance plans with Florida Blue — plans that don’t meet the ACA’s minimum coverage requirements now — will have to purchase more robust plans, whether they want to or not, or forgo health insurance and pay a fine. But the insurer will offer them alternative plans. Plus, many may find more robust insurance than they previously had on the ACA-created exchanges, and some could pay about the same or less if they qualify for government subsidies. The ad leaves the general impression that 300,000 Floridians will be losing insurance next year, period. And that’s not the case.

Sink was unopposed by Democrats in her bid for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, occupied by Republican C.W. Bill Young for 43 years until his death in October. She will face Jolly, who won the Republican primary on Jan. 14, and Libertarian Lucas Overby in a March 11 special election. Polls show a tight race between Jolly and Sink.

The Attack on Jolly

The ad from the Sink campaign asks what viewers “really know” about Jolly, and then goes on to highlight his past as a lobbyist.

Sink ad: What do we really know about Washington lobbyist David Jolly? Jolly cashed in on his connections. Got paid over a million dollars working for special interests. Jolly even lobbied for a group committed to privatizing Social Security and then lobbied on a plan to turn Medicare into a costly voucher program.

After working as general counsel to the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Jolly became a lobbyist for Van Scoyoc Associates, a powerhouse Washington lobbying firm. Jolly later opened his own lobbing firm, Three Bridges Advisors. The firm brought in $230,000 in 2013, before Jolly stepped down to run for Congress. The firm earned $975,000 in 2011 and 2012 combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. So the ad’s claim that he “got paid over a million dollars working for special interests” is accurate.

But the ad reaches too far in its attempt to tie Jolly’s lobbying work to Social Security and Medicare overhauls that have been unpopular in the past. The ad claims that Jolly “even lobbied for a group committed to privatizing Social Security and then lobbied on a plan to turn Medicare into a costly voucher program.”

A lobbying disclosure form filed in 2009 indicates that while he was with Van Scoyoc, Jolly did lobbying work on behalf of Free Enterprise Nation, a group that sought to combat excessive government spending and bureaucracy. In an interview on CNBC on July 12, 2010, the group’s CEO, Jim MacDougald, was asked about “personal accounts, as an option, not a mandate.” MacDougald responded that the U.S. “should definitely do that. … There’s no question that you should have some authority to invest your own portion of your money and to keep the government’s hands off it.”

President George W. Bush first proposed the idea of Social Security “personal accounts” back in 2005. We have concluded in the past that that plan falls short of “privatization,” as Democrats like to call it. More important, however, the former CEO of the group says FEN never advocated for Social Security privatization, and Jolly and the CEO say Jolly never did, or was asked to do, any lobbying on such changes to Social Security.

MacDougald, who is a fundraising chairman for the Jolly campaign, told us in a phone interview that while “I may have said that in response to a question” [on CNBC], he was “speaking as an individual,” not on behalf of Free Enterprise Nation.

In fact, he said, “I’m opposed to privatizing Social Security. My organization was opposed to privatizing Social Security. David [Jolly] was not retained to deal with anything to do with privatizing Social Security.”

A review of the FEN website (now defunct, but accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine) backs up MacDougald’s contention about the aims of the group. The initiatives listed on the group’s website include: opposition to the Affordable Care Act; opposition to “unfair union activism”; support for requiring “all public sector entities to disclose all pay, benefits, liabilities and debt to taxpayers”; and a desire to “address the Social Security crisis.”

With regard to Social Security, FEN argues that pension plans for public sector workers that allow them to “retire” after 20 years of service create a “financial burden” on the country that threatens the government’s ability to honor its Social Security obligations to those in the private sector.

FEN website on Social Security “crisis”: Social Security is NOT guaranteed, and Congress will be tempted to reduce benefits. Congress is also already discussing “means testing” for Social Security eligibility, and is routinely increasing Medicare Part “B” premiums. Benefits for public sector retirees cannot be reduced, requiring ever-increasing taxation to support unsustainable levels of promised benefits. This will have a devastating impact on private sector workers who are currently retired, on “baby boomers” retiring in 2011 and thereafter, and on the private sector employers and employees who must pay taxes to support this.

Nothing on the group’s website suggests that it supported a plan to allow Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes. Nor does the site discuss any support for a plan to replace traditional Medicare with government subsidies, or “vouchers” — the other initiative for which the Sink ad claims FEN was lobbying.

The Sink campaign points to a November 2009 lobbying disclosure form on which Jolly claimed he lobbied on behalf of Free Enterprise Nation on the following issues: health care reform, Social Security reform, the Paycheck Fairness Act and other labor-related issues and initiatives, taxpayer protection, and small business.

But MacDougald insisted Jolly was not retained by Free Enterprise to do any lobbying on Social Security, and he said he never even had a conversation with Jolly about privatizing Social Security. The group’s main interest, he said, was to get “transparency and disclosure from the government to the American taxpayers.” Specifically, MacDougald said he was concerned that the government did not include the unfunded liability associated with future Medicare and Social Security payments as debt on the books.

That agenda — and the absence of advocacy for Social Security change — is consistent with subsequent quarterly lobbying reports filed by Van Scoyoc Associates in 2010. (You can read those reports here, here, here and here.)

So why was “Social Security reform” listed as one of the issues on which Jolly lobbied in late 2009? Jolly told the Tampa Bay Times he “had a practice of always overcomplying” on disclosure forms out of an abundance of caution, and his campaign said he never actually performed any Social Security lobbying.

“As we have explained before, if an issue came up during a meeting, David disclosed the topic,” Jolly campaign spokeswoman Sarah Bascom told the Tampa Bay Times. “In this instance, he was meeting with Paul Ryan on the Ryan budget and the topic of Social Security came up. David did not advocate either way on the issue.”

Lobbying on Medicare?

The revelation by the Jolly campaign that Jolly met with Ryan to discuss Ryan’s proposed budget plan provides the foundation for the Sink ad’s second claim, that Jolly “then lobbied on a plan to turn Medicare into a costly voucher program.”

Ryan’s proposed 2011 budget plan, Roadmap for America, which was released in January 2010, would have dramatically changed Medicare. Under the Ryan plan, new enrollees in 2021 (65-year-olds) would get a subsidy to help them buy a private insurance plan through a new Medicare exchange. Over time, those subsidies would be less likely to cover the cost of Medicare, and seniors would pay more under that Ryan proposal than they would under the current Medicare system. When Ryan proposed a budget with a similar Medicare subsidy plan the following year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated seniors’ costs in 2022 would be twice as much as they would be under traditional Medicare. Democrats have often derided the proposal as a “voucher” plan, and we have weighed in when those attacks went too far.

Most important to the Sink ad’s claim, however, is that there’s no indication Jolly or the firm he was representing encouraged Ryan to adopt the so-called Medicare voucher plan. The faulty logic goes like this: Jolly, in his capacity as a lobbyist, met with Ryan to discuss issues related to Ryan’s proposed budget plan. Ryan’s budget plan ultimately included a voucher system for Medicare; therefore, Jolly “lobbied on a plan to turn Medicare into a costly voucher program.”

That’s the sum of the evidence underpinning the Sink ad’s claim. Sink provides no evidence that Medicare was even mentioned in the meeting, and there is no record of Jolly lobbying for Ryan’s Medicare plan.

In fact, we reviewed all eight lobbying reports that show Jolly representing Free Enterprise Nation, from November 2009 through June 2011, and Medicare is mentioned only in the context of what the Free Enterprise Nation calls “unfunded liability.” That’s consistent with MacDougald’s statement to us that the group was lobbying for “transparency and disclosure” of government promises that future taxpayers will have to pay.

A Florida Democratic Party mailer that hits Jolly on the same issues, noted that Jolly “said ‘there’s a lot of good’ in the Ryan budget that would end Medicare as we know it.” The Sink campaign mentioned this too, as evidence for its claim. The mailer was distributed in senior centers in the congressional district, the Tampa Bay Times’ Alex Leary reported.  That comment by Jolly — that “there’s a lot of good” in the Ryan budget — came in an appearance on “Political Connections” on Bay News 9 in Tampa Bay on Dec. 8, 2013. But he said more than that, specifically on the issues of Social Security and Medicare.

Jolly, Dec. 8, 2013, on Bay News 9: Look, I think there was a lot of good in the Ryan budget. …  I think we have to be careful on the Ryan budget for a couple of reasons. Entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare — we know what that means to the community here. I have said from the very beginning, we have to protect the promises that have been made, to everybody.

Asked if he would have voted for the Ryan budget, Jolly said he would “have to examine the details of the Ryan plan more.”

Jolly, Dec. 8, Bay News 9: It [the Ryan budget] said we are going to slow the growth of these entitlement programs. Yes, I agree with slowing the growth of these entitlement programs. However, what we have to do is secure the promises we’ve made. Listen, I’m a fiscal conservative, right? But I also believe being a fiscal conservative means taking responsibility. The government has made promises to people – to the two of you [reporters on the show] and me as well – upon which we have made financial plans. I have made a financial plan based upon a promise the government made to me. I’m not too young for the government to still continuing honoring that promise.

“Let me be crystal clear,” Jolly campaign spokeswoman Sarah Bascom told us via email, “David has been on the record numerous times that he would not have voted for the Ryan Budget and that Washington needs to honor the promises made to individuals who rely on Social Security and Medicare. That needs to be printed and clear.”

Jolly was not so equivocal in his statement on Bay News 9 that he would not have voted for the Ryan budget. Nor was his comment that he saw “a lot of good in the Ryan budget” a full-throated endorsement, as his Democratic opponents would have voters believe.

More recently, Jolly released a statement through his press office that offers a more definitive denunciation of Ryan’s plan.

Jolly, Jan. 28: I’ve said from the beginning of this campaign we have to protect Social Security and Medicare for current and future beneficiaries — period. I’m on the record having opposed the Ryan budget. Alex Sink knows that and yet continues to mislead our community with dishonesty.

Jolly’s campaign claims that in his meeting with Ryan, Jolly was critical of parts of the Ryan budget. In particular, Jolly voiced his client’s concerns about the budget’s lack of transparency on long-term Social Security and Medicare debt.

So Jolly has publicly stated that agrees with “slowing the growth of these entitlement programs,” like Social Security and Medicare. He has not provided details about how he would go about doing that. But we could find no convincing evidence that Jolly advocated for the specific plans highlighted in the ad — or even that the group he represented as a lobbyist advocated for them.

The Attack on Sink

Sink opened her ad campaign on Jan. 15 with a TV ad that featured a playful back-and-forth between Sink and her father, Kester Sink. The NRCC references that ad in the opening to its ad, which paints Sink as a “tax and spender.”

Narrator, NRCC ad: You’ve seen Alex Sink’s cute ads. But what do we really know about her record? Alex Sink supports Obamacare, even though 300,000 Floridians could lose their health insurance plans because of it. Sink has supported higher taxes too. Higher property taxes. Higher sales taxes. More taxes on water and TV. Alex Sink: another tax and spender Florida can’t afford.

We’ll start with the tax claims. Although the ad claims that Sink supported “higher property taxes” and “higher sales taxes,” in neither case did Sink advocate for raising tax rates.

In January 2008, Sink, then Florida’s chief financial officer, opposed a property tax amendment brought to Florida voters. The amendment sought to increase the homestead exemption, which the Tampa Bay Times reported would save homeowners an average of $240 annually. It also sought to create a new homestead exemption for some business property. Sink said she was concerned the tax cut would result in firefighters losing jobs, and that it would negatively impact Floridians’ quality of life. Despite Sink’s opposition, the tax relief — championed by then Gov. Charlie Crist —  passed handily. Still, we note that Sink opposed a tax cut; she did not support raising property taxes. There’s a difference.

As for the sales tax, Sink proposed in late 2008 that the state look into reviewing and repealing some of the sales tax exemptions as a way to offset a projected state budget deficit of $2.3 billion. Among the exemptions: movie tickets, agricultural property, fitness clubs, skyboxes, school sporting events, religious items, eyeglasses and contacts, bottled water, ostrich feed, charter fishing trips, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and Super Bowl tickets.

“Every sales tax exemption ought to be back on the table, ought to have to see the light of day,” Sink said. “Somebody ought to stand up and defend why an exemption is fair and legitimate or it’s not.”

Despite Sink’s recommendation, the review of sales tax exemptions was not completed that legislative session. Again, Sink’s position would not have resulted in a higher sales tax rate, but rather the sales tax might have been extended to some products then exempted.

The ad’s claim that Sink advocated for “more taxes on water and TV” is accurate, though a bit dated. Back in February 1997, Sink, then president of Florida Banking Group for NationsBank and a member of the Governor’s Commission on Education, supported an expansion of a utilities tax in order to fund public school construction. According to a Tampa Bay Times story on Feb. 28, 1997, the plan was to expand a 2.5 percent tax charged on the gross receipts of electricity, natural and manufactured gas, and telecommunication services and also apply it to water, sewer, cable and solid waste utilities.

“We ought to say we have a crisis [with regard to a public school buildings shortage], and this is what we really think should happen,” Sink said, according to a story in the Tampa Bay Times. “If the politics go the other way, so be it.”

The paper noted that Sink’s recommendation failed on an 18-12 vote.

Sink and Obamacare

As for the ad’s claims about Obamacare, the Tampa Bay Times reported on Oct. 30, 2013, that Sink “generally supports the Affordable Care Act, though she would rescind a tax on medical devices.” According to Sink’s campaign website, Sink would “keep the good, fix the bad” in the Affordable Care Act. She called the website rollout problems “unacceptable,” and said that if changes can’t be made in a timely way “then components of the law should be delayed until these issues are addressed.” But Sink opposes Republican efforts to repeal the law. Said Sink on the campaign website: “We cannot go back to a time when individuals with pre-existing conditions were denied care, seniors were forced to pay more for medicine, or insurance companies could do whatever they wanted – including kicking families off their plans because they got sick.”

So the ad is generally accurate that Sink “supports Obamacare” (with the exceptions noted above), but the ad leaves a misleading impression with the claim that “300,000 Floridians could lose their health insurance plans because of it.”

The issue of cancellations is a GOP talking point that we have written about before. The ad is also similar to, but doesn’t repeat, the phrasing used by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Oct. 22, 2013, on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor.” Said Rubio: “On this very day in Florida, it was announced that 300,000 people are going to lose their individual coverage because of Obamacare. Now those people next year, they don’t have health insurance.” Our fact-checking colleagues at PolitiFact rated that claim Mostly False because the insurer, Florida Blue, explained that consumers “will have ‘continuous health care coverage,’ ” by being assigned a new plan or given the option to choose another plan.

The NRCC ad says only that 300,000 Floridians “could” lose their insurance plans. Interestingly, the NRCC ad references a Nov. 15, 2013, story in the Tampa Bay Times that begins, “Florida’s largest health insurer will give 300,000 customers who received cancellation notices the option to renew their existing plans for one more year.” Florida Blue had initially sent out cancellation notices to 300,000 Floridians, because their old plans did not meet the minimum coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Those types of cancellations were at the heart of the criticism that Obama ran afoul of his promise that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.” (A claim that has made our lists of “whoppers” several years running.)

But on Nov. 14, Obama offered states a one-year reprieve, essentially allowing people to keep old, non-compliant health care plans for another year, until the summer of 2015. The NRCC argues that’s just a temporary fix, and that in another year, 300,000 Floridians will have to purchase different insurance plans than they currently have. But they won’t necessarily lose their insurance entirely. Some of those people can opt to stay on different, updated plans offered by Florida Blue (plans that may cost more money than the policyholders are paying now). Or they may shop on the new exchanges — in which case some may have to pay more for more robust coverage, while others will wind up with more comprehensive coverage for less money because of government subsidies.

Again, while carefully worded, we think the ad leaves the general impression that 300,000 Floridians will be losing insurance next year, period. And that’s not the case.

We also note that the Affordable Care Act, as enacted, would have provided Medicaid coverage to nearly 1 million uninsured people in Florida, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation – but the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature has opted out of the Medicaid expansion.

— Robert Farley