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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

McConnell’s Bloated Tax Boast

A new ad from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell grossly oversells the percentage of Kentuckians that McConnell “saved” from income tax hikes last year. The ad says McConnell saved 99 percent from “Obama’s tax increases,” but the actual figure is closer to 1 percent to 2 percent.

The claim is based on the compromise McConnell helped to forge to avert the so-called fiscal cliff last year. As part of the deal, Bush-era tax cuts that were set to expire were permanently extended for individuals making less than $400,000 and couples making less than $450,000. McConnell estimates the tax increase falls on less than 1 percent of Kentuckians.

But the McConnell ad suggests Obama wanted the income tax rate to rise for everyone, when in fact the president only called for allowing the higher tax rates to kick in for individuals making more than $200,000 or couples making more than $250,000 — about 2 percent to 3 percent of taxpayers.

McConnell and other Republicans can credibly claim to have increased the threshold from $200,000/$250,000 to $400,000/$450,000. But that’s all. That translates to saving 1 percent to 2 percent of Americans from “Obama tax increases.”

The ad — titled “Conservative Leadership” — which has begun airing statewide on Kentucky television, emphasizes McConnell’s conservative credentials less than a month before his May 20 primary against a tea-party-backed candidate, Matt Bevin.

According to the ad’s narrator, “Last year, [McConnell] saved 99 percent of Kentuckians from an income tax increase.” On screen, it states, “Saved 99% of Kentuckians from Obama’s Tax Increases.”

Small print in the ad explains that it is referring to the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. That’s the bipartisan compromise that was reached at the 11th hour to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, a potent mix of tax hikes and deep spending cuts that were scheduled to kick in at the end of 2012. Absent a deal, the Congressional Budget Office warned those tax hikes and spending cuts might trigger a recession.

One of the major sticking points between the parties was the fate of the George W. Bush-era income tax cuts, which were scheduled to expire at the end of 2012. Republicans wanted to permanently extend the tax cuts for everyone, and Obama wanted to allow them expire for upper-income taxpayers. Obama staked out his position in his 2013 budget proposal, which would have allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire for individuals making more than $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000 (increasing the top tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent). That plan was consistent with Obama’s longstanding campaign promise not to raise taxes on couples making under $250,000.

Ultimately, the two sides reached a compromise on Dec. 31, 2012, and McConnell was instrumental in helping to write that deal. The bill, which Congress approved on New Year’s Day 2013, permanently extended the Bush-era tax cuts for individuals making below $400,000 and couples making below $450,000. The bill passed the Senate 89-8, and McConnell was among the 40 Republicans who supported it (five Republicans opposed it). But it was also supported by an overwhelming majority of Democrats, 47-3.

McConnell’s ad says he “saved 99 percent of Kentuckians from an income tax increase,” and the text on the screen goes one step further and states that McConnell saved those 99 percent of Kentuckians from “Obama’s tax increases.” According to the McConnell campaign, without the bill, all Kentuckians would have faced a tax increase, and McConnell’s deal “saved” from tax increases all but those making more than $400,000.

The McConnell campaign points to 2011 IRS data for Kentucky that breaks down the number of income tax filers into groups based on adjusted gross income. The IRS income groups don’t match up with the legislation, so it’s not possible to determine with precision the number of taxpayers making more than $400,000. But by making the assumption that a third of those making between $200,000 and $500,000 earn more than $400,000, the McConnell campaign approximates that a little less than 1 percent of Kentuckians saw their income tax rate rise.

That’s a fair approximation, said Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center.

But again, according to Obama’s plan, only individuals making more than $200,000 or couples making more than $250,000 would have seen a tax increase.

“It’s hard to find anyone who wanted to raise taxes on everybody,” Williams told us in a phone interview. “There were a few hard-liners, but Obama was certainly not one of them.”

In other words, McConnell can only credibly claim to have “saved” from tax increases those Kentuckians who earn between $200,000 and $400,000 (individuals) or between $250,000 and $450,000 (couples).

According to Williams, Obama’s plan would have resulted in higher income tax rates for about 2 percent to 3 percent of Americans. So McConnell would only have saved from tax increases 1 percent to 2 percent of Americans. Using the Kentucky IRS data cited by the McConnell campaign (and making the same assumptions it did), we found the compromise plan “saved” a little more than 1 percent of Kentuckians from “Obama’s tax increases.”

Any way you slice it, that’s a far cry from McConnell’s 99 percent boast.

— Robert Farley