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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Old Trick vs. Blue Dog

A Republican ad claims Mike Ross, the Democratic candidate for governor of Arkansas, voted “against taxpayers” more than 80 times while a member of the House. We find that number to be inflated.

The ad also ignores votes Ross cast in favor of the massive 2001 Bush tax cuts, several votes to permanently bury the estate tax, and to permanently extend the Bush cuts for low- and moderate-income taxpayers. Furthermore, some of the votes “against taxpayers” actually favored lowering taxes, or providing cuts for millions of households while raising them on those with very high incomes.

The ad from the Republican Governors Association began running June 18, calling Ross’ campaign promises to cut state taxes “all hogwash.” Ross promises to phase in lower income taxes and to phase out the state’s business tax on partial replacements and repairs of manufacturing machinery and equipment. But the RGA’s narrator says, “Ross voted with Nancy Pelosi over 80 times against taxpayers. … No wonder Ross received an ‘F’ from the National Taxpayers Union.”

We don’t dispute that the NTU gave Ross an “F.” The conservative group gave him that rating, its lowest, for eight of the 12 years he was in Congress. His highest rating was a “C-” in 2011 and 2012, his final two years. The NTU says it rates votes on “spending and debt,” as well as taxes, and that an “F” means “big spender.”

There’s also no question that Ross’ record is not as conservative on taxes and spending as that of his Republican opponent, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who got a “B” from the NTU for three of four years he served in the House, and who never received less than a “C.” That’s so despite Ross being a former member of the Blue Dog Coalition of “fiscally conservative Democrats.”

An Old Trick

Our quarrel here is with the tired, old trick of padding vote counts on taxes. We called it “tax tally trickery” when John McCain’s campaign tried it against Barack Obama in 2008, and we started debunking this sort of claim a decade ago, when President George W. Bush used it against John Kerry, his 2004 Democratic opponent.

In this case, the RGA’s “ad verification” lists 85 votes that Ross cast during his 12 years in the House (out of 8,570 roll call votes recorded by the House clerk during those years). Very few of them would have actually raised taxes on anyone, and some would have actually cut taxes.

We’ve gone over all 85 votes listed, and we find the total to be padded because:

  • Forty-six were purely procedural votes. For example, the very first vote listed is against a parliamentary motion to bring to a vote a proposed House rule to set terms of debate for what became the 2001 Bush tax cuts. (Not mentioned is that Ross was one of only 28 House Democrats who later crossed party lines to vote in support of final passage of those cuts.)
  • Fifteen of the votes were on non-binding budget resolutions that set targets for revenue and spending, but would not have had any direct effect on tax law.
  • Only 16 of the votes favored measures that would have raised taxes. These included:
    • Seven votes on measures to raise taxes on tobacco products to fund the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (including votes for a failed attempt to override President Bush’s veto of the Democratic measure in 2008, and multiple votes for the 2009 measure that President Obama signed soon after he first took office.)
    • Seven votes on amendments to increase taxes only on couples making $1 million or more per year. All of these were Democratic proposals that would, for example, have provided an extra $1 billion to spend for anti-terrorism security measures, or to increase spending for education, health and other Democratic priorities. All of these were offered when Republicans were in the majority, so none had any hope of passage.
    • Two votes on Democratic measures to raise taxes on oil and gas companies to fund renewable energy subsidies. These included his vote for the House version of the 2007 energy bill, which was signed by President Bush after the Senate stripped out the oil-and-gas tax increases, and his 2008 vote for another energy measure that died in the Senate.

 Counting Cuts

Sometimes the RGA counts votes in favor of tax cuts as being “against” taxpayers.

It counts a vote that Ross cast in 2007 for a Democratic proposal that would have cut taxes for 27.5 percent of all households — by an average of $428 each — according to an analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. But Republicans count it as a vote “against taxpayers” because these cuts would have been paid for by raising taxes on 0.1 percent of households (by more than doubling the tax that private investment firms pay on their profits).

In another example, Ross voted in 2002 for an amendment that would immediately have exempted individuals with less than $3 million, or couples with less than $6 million, from the federal estate tax, ahead of the schedule approved the year before as part of the Bush cuts. But because that was offered as a Democratic substitute to a proposal that would have made repeal of the estate tax permanent, the RGA lists it as a vote “against taxpayers.” (We will also note that only a tiny percentage pay any estate tax. The current exemption is $5,340,000 for individuals who die this year, and, effectively, double that for couples.)

Spinning by Omission

The RGA ad also spins by omission. It fails to mention, for example, that Ross went on to vote for permanent repeal of the estate tax after the Democratic alternative failed. He was one of only 41 House Democrats to do so. And he also voted for permanent repeal in 2005 and 2006, votes also not mentioned in the RGA analysis.

And we’ve already mentioned Ross’ support for the 2001 Bush cuts. Padding the list of “against” votes with procedural and non-binding votes, while ignoring votes cast in favor of tax cuts, gives a distorted picture of Ross’ record.

Millionaire ‘Families’

The ad’s narrator makes the claim that “Ross and Pelosi voted for higher taxes on families and small businesses.” Our advice to viewers is to ask, “Which families?”

It turns out, according to the RGA’s own ad verification, that only very high-income families would have seen higher taxes. The RGA lists seven votes in 2003, 2004 and 2005 for Democratic proposals to scale back the Bush rate cuts for individuals making over $500,000 a year, or in some cases over $1 million a year.

None of these would have fallen directly on “small businesses,” but profits from many small businesses flow through to the owners’ personal income tax returns. In those cases, only those with profits of $500,000 or $1 million (depending on the amendment in question) would also have been affected.

Also mentioned is Ross’ 2008 vote for the Democratic budget resolution, even though this non-binding resolution didn’t affect tax rates. Furthermore, the version passed by the House called, generally, for “middle-income tax relief” to be paid for by “reforms … that promote a fairer distribution of taxes across families and generations, economic efficiency, higher rates of tax compliance to close the ‘tax gap,’ and reduced taxpayer burdens through tax simplification.”  The Bush tax cuts were then scheduled to expire at the end of 2010, and the budget resolution called, generally, for preserving such middle-income breaks as the 10 percent individual income-tax bracket and the child tax credit, provided this could be done without adding to the federal deficit.

In earlier stories, we’ve already noted several dubious claims by both sides in this hard-fought governor’s race. And it’s still a long time until November.

— Brooks Jackson