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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Stretching the Facts in Pennsylvania

Competing ads in a Republican congressional primary in Pennsylvania go too far in their attacks related to federal farm subsidies and a vehicle mileage tax.

A TV ad from longtime Rep. Bill Shuster accuses challenger Art Halvorson of hypocrisy for speaking out against government farm subsidies while “lining his pockets with taxpayer subsidies.”

  • The ad claims Halvorson’s farm in Iowa “got half a million dollars.” Halvorson rents the property to a farmer who has received $423,019 worth of USDA subsidies over 18 years, but only a fraction of that was for farming done on Halvorson’s 40-acre property. And the subsidies went to the farmer, not Halvorson. Halvorson did, however, indirectly benefit from subsidies, which increased the value of his property.
  • The ad also claims Halvorson got “thousands more” in subsidies that he “signed up for himself” for his 10-acre property in Bedford, Pa. But it was the previous owner of Halvorson’s property who initiated 10-year conservation contracts. Halvorson agreed to honor the remainder of the deals, but he allowed them to terminate in 2011 and 2012.

A radio ad from Halvorson, meanwhile, accuses Shuster of “leading the charge” on a plan to stabilize federal transportation funding by charging a tax based on vehicle miles traveled. Shuster has expressed interest in considering such a tax in the future, but he has never formally endorsed it. And he has rejected the idea for this year’s budget.

Pennsylvania’s 9th District, located in the south-central part of the state, has been in the hands of the Shuster family for more than 40 years. Bill Shuster won the seat in 2001 after his father, Bud Shuster, held it for 28 years. In the heavily Republican district, Shuster has faced little meaningful competition from Democrats over the years, but he now faces a challenge from a tea party candidate, Halvorson, and “constitutionally conservative” Travis Schooley in the Republican primary.

Subsidy Stretch

In an ad that debuted on March 20, Shuster accuses Halvorson of being a hypocrite, because on the campaign trail, Halvorson has railed against government subsidies — the ad quotes him saying, “all subsidies are bad” — yet, the ad states, “that hasn’t stopped him from lining his pockets with taxpayer subsidies.”

According to the Shuster ad:

Announcer: His farm in Iowa got half a million dollars. And his farm in Bedford got thousands more. He said the government forced him to. But public records show Halvorson signed up for the subsidies himself. Art Halvorson’s no conservative. He’s a hypocrite. And Washington already has enough of those.

The claims relate to two different properties, with two different circumstances.

The first claim relates to a 40-acre property Halvorson owns in Iowa. The Shuster campaign released documents from the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database related to USDA subsidies paid to two Iowa farmers between 1995 and 2012: $424,900 in farming and conservation subsidies to David Earnie Halvorson; and $423,019 in farming, conservation and disaster subsidies paid to Jon Charles Jacobson.

David Earnie Halvorson is Art Halvorson’s cousin, and he owns a farm next door. But Art Halvorson said he has no financial relationship with his cousin’s farm — and property records don’t indicate one either. So those subsidies have nothing to do with him.

Art Halvorson does rent his property to farmer Jon Charles Jacobson for about $13,000 a year. But the $423,019 the records indicate Jacobson received between 1995 and 2012 relate to all of the properties Jacobson farms. Jacobson told us he farms 700 acres. So the 40 acres of Halvorson’s property make up just under 6 percent of the acreage Jacobson farms and for which he receives subsidies. In other words, only a fraction of that $423,019 is tied to Halvorson’s property — in direct contradiction to the ad’s claim that “his farm in Iowa got half a million dollars.”

“Art doesn’t receive any of those farm subsidies,” Jacobson said. “The tenant [in this case Jacobson] receives them.”

The Shuster campaign provided us with a 16-second audio clip of Halvorson speaking on a radio show on Oct. 10, 2013, saying, “I’ve benefited greatly by the fact of the land price of my farm has tripled because of ethanol.” We asked the Shuster campaign for the full context of Halvorson’s remarks, but the campaign did not respond.

Halvorson doesn’t dispute that he said that. But Halvorson said he brought it up in the context of making the point that even though he has indirectly benefited from federal subsidies, he still opposes them.

“I did personally benefit,” Halvorson told us by phone, “but I’m opposed to it. They are bad for the country.”

Readers can make of all that what they will, but the ad’s suggestion that Halvorson got a half million in subsidies for his Iowa farm is simply wrong. At best, one could argue Halvorson indirectly benefited because his property was worth more due to federal subsidies — a fact he readily acknowledges.

The second claim in the ad relates to a 10-acre property owned by Halvorson in Bedford, Pa. The previous owner of the property signed two 10-year conservation contracts in 2001 and 2002 for different portions of the property. In exchange for agreeing not to farm the land, he got $670 a year from the federal government. When Halvorson bought the property in 2009, he opted to honor the agreements through the 10-year contracts.

“That obligation came when I bought the property,” Halvorson said. “He’s saying I initiated it myself, but I was honoring a preexisting contract.”

Robin Robertson, executive director of the Bedford County USDA, told the Daily American that the program is “meant to increase wildlife and conserve highly erodible land that shouldn’t be farmed.” Robertson said that when Halvorson purchased the land, he could have terminated that contract, but he would have had to pay back all of the subsidies paid to the previous owner, plus interest and a penalty.

Halvorson said he decided instead to honor the remainder of the contracts, and let them expire in 2011 and 2012 without renewing them. And, he said, last month he donated the roughly $2,500 he received in subsidies to Habitat for Humanity, plus an additional $2,500.

Track and Tax

A radio ad from the Halvorson campaign, meanwhile, claims Shuster is “leading the charge” for a new vehicle mileage tax (VMT), essentially a tax based on how much someone drives. Shuster has expressed some support for considering such a tax in the future, but he has not endorsed such a plan. And it is not on the table for this year’s budget. Therefore, to say Shuster is “leading the charge” for the VMT goes too far.

According to the radio ad from the Halvorson campaign:

Halvorson radio ad: Last November the Harrisburg politicians stuck Pennsylvania drivers with a record gas tax hike. And now the politicians in Washington want to gouge us even more with a new tax. Leading the push for this new tax is our own career politician, big spender Bill Shuster.

Shuster is supporting a new proposal backed by liberals that would tax us on how far we drive. It’s called track and tax. The government would mandate a black box in your car to track your mileage.

And then tax you on how far you drive. This is in addition to the taxes you already pay at the pump. Bill Shuster is not only supporting this awful proposal but he’s leading the charge.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the highway and transit accounts of the Highway Trust Fund will have insufficient revenues to meet obligations to fund transit and highway projects in 2015, and the federal government may have to delay some payments to states before the fiscal year ends in September. Several ideas have been floated to boost revenues. One is to raise the federal gas tax; another has been to charge a tax based on vehicle-miles traveled.

So does Shuster support a VMT, as the ad states?

Some of the confusion comes from a news account written in February after a House Transportation Committee meeting in which Shuster ruled out an increase in the federal gas tax this year to make up for revenue shortfalls.

Based on some comments Shuster made to a reporter after that hearing, Bloomberg ran a story headlined “Mileage Tax Pushed by Shuster to Pay for U.S. Highway Bill” that began:

Bloomberg, Feb. 4: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said he favors user fees including a vehicle miles tax to pay for a long-term U.S. highway bill that would extend for at least five years.

Shuster objected. A transcript of the hearing suggested Shuster wasn’t nearly as committed to the idea as the story made it seem. The story was based on a question asked by Bloomberg’s Peter Cook about Shuster’s ideas for the long-term funding of the highway trust fund. Shuster offered a couple suggestions and then said this:

Shuster, Feb. 4: Now, I do think we need to start the discussion on — and I don’t believe it’s going to be solved in this bill, but start the discussion on, you know, down the road how — is it vehicle miles traveled? You know, what are the other ways to generate the funds? Because the trust fund, we all know, everybody’s — in the next couple of years, we’ll all be driving cars going 50 miles [per gallon], cars that don’t use fuel, use electricity or some say use coal if you use electricity — 50 percent of it is oil; I like to remind that to people. So we’ve got to figure out a way to make sure that the user fee — and that’s what it is, it’s a user fee. If you use the roads, you pay for the roads. So, again, we need to start that discussion. …

That’s hardly a full-throated endorsement of a VMT. Based on that, Bloomberg corrected its headline to read “Miles Tax Discussed by Shuster to Pay for Roads,” and changed the lede to this:

Bloomberg, Feb. 10: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said user fees including a vehicle miles tax need to be considered to pay for U.S. highway construction in the long term.

“As Chairman of the Transportation Committee, Mr. Shuster has an obligation to look at all options when drafting legislation, which is exactly what he has said and subsequently done — look at the options,” Shuster spokesman Sean Joyce told us via email. “VMT was an option that was reviewed, and after consideration was in turn, taken off the table. There is zero percent chance the VMT will be a part of Chairman Shuster’s highway bill this year, and any statement beyond that fact is 100 percent false.”

On Dec. 3, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced H.R. 3638, the Road Usage Fee Pilot Program Act of 2013, which would spend $35 million on studies looking at the feasibility of mileage-based fee systems. But the bill has no co-sponsors, and Shuster did not support it.

But Shuster has voiced some support for considering a VMT in the future.

An April 24, 2013, CQ News article claimed Shuster “has said that switching to a vehicle mileage tax would be a sensible alternative to the gas tax that could more efficiently charge motorists for their use of the nation’s highways, but he noted there are privacy concerns surrounding its implementation.”

Another CQ article on July 23, 2013, said Shuster “has said a vehicle mileage tax might be the most logical way to provide a long-term funding stream, though he has not committed to any particular fix in advance of his panel’s work on the next authorization bill.”

And in a Dec. 7, 2012, article, Bloomberg quoted Shuster as saying a tax based on miles driven is a “fair way” to pay for highway improvements.

All of those comments indicate Shuster’s support for considering a VMT at some time in the future, but they fall short of him endorsing it, let alone “leading the charge” for it, as the Halvorson ad alleges.

— Robert Farley and Justin Cohen