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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Editing Out the Facts in Alabama

In a Republican primary runoff in Alabama’s 6th Congressional District, Paul DeMarco’s TV ad leaves the false impression that Gary Palmer supported a $1.2 billion tax plan. Palmer opposed the tax hike, but the ad-makers butchered an op-ed written by Palmer to make it appear otherwise.

DeMarco, a state representative, and Palmer, an official at a conservative state think tank, were the top two vote-getters in the June 3 Republican primary, but no candidate received enough votes to win the nomination in what was a crowded field to replace retiring Rep. Spencer Bachus. DeMarco and Palmer advanced to a July 15 runoff with much at stake. The GOP nominee will most likely win the general election in a district that the National Review Online calls one of the most conservative in the country.

DeMarco’s TV ad, titled “Alabama Conservative,” states that DeMarco “stood up to his own party against a tax increase,” while suggesting that Palmer did not. In particular, the ad cites a Sept. 6, 2003, op-ed that Palmer wrote when then-Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, sought voter approval for a ballot initiative in 2003 that would have raised taxes by $1.2 billion to close a budget gap and increase education funding.

DeMarco TV ad: Here’s what Gary Palmer wrote about the billion-dollar tax increase called Amendment One: “To the surprise of many of my conservative friends and colleagues, I am of the opinion that the state needs more revenue. I would be willing to support a tax increase …”

That quote was cut off in mid-thought. The next word was “but.” Here’s what Palmer actually wrote (with the missing words in bold, for emphasis).

Palmer, Sept. 6, 2003: To the surprise of many of my conservative friends and colleagues, I am of the opinion that the state needs more revenue. I would be willing to support a tax increase but only on the condition that we first set in place some meaningful accountability measures. Unfortunately, the proposal before the people of Alabama falls well short of the mark.

Big difference.

Palmer wrote the op-ed as president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, where he is now the chief development officer. His op-ed detailed parts of the tax plan that he found “laudable” — specifically, a “$73 million General Fund reserve account, elimination of tenure for principals and establishment of an arbitration process for dismissing teachers,” and “a modest attempt to address the soaring cost of the Public Education Employees Health Insurance Program.” But he wrote that the tax plan lacked accountability, lamenting, for example, that the Legislature rejected an amendment that would have limited spending based on such factors as population growth and inflation.

Palmer’s point was that he supports systematic changes designed to reduce spending and to restore the public’s trust in how the government spends its money. Without such changes, he wrote, the public has “no reason to believe that our elected officials will not waste the additional revenues, however badly they are needed.”

The ad’s deceptive editing not only leaves the false impression that Palmer supported Riley’s tax hike plan, but it also suggests that he did so unconditionally.

Earlier that year, Palmer called on the state to cut spending to close the budget gap — admitting it may not be enough to avoid a tax increase, but insisting it needed to be the first step. In an op-ed that he wrote on Feb. 20, 2003, Palmer said that before asking taxpayers to pay more in taxes the state should freeze state hiring, privatize some state functions, restructure state employee health benefits and eliminate programs that are “not part of the core function of government.”

Palmer, nearly 10 years later, participated in an effort to change government operations as an ex-officio member of the Commission on Improving State Government, a panel convened by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley. In a Dec. 23, 2013, press release, Bentley claimed the commission helped produce $1.1 billion in annual savings.

It would be fair to say that Palmer has expressed a willingness to consider tax increases under certain specific conditions. Those conditions were not met in 2003, and Palmer did not support the proposed tax increase. Instead, the DeMarco campaign resorts to deceptive editing to distort Palmer’s position on taxes.

— Alexander Nacht and Eugene Kiely