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Misleading Michigan GOP Primary Voters


The Republican candidates in Michigan’s 4th Congressional District entered the final weeks of the primary trading misleading claims in TV ads that rely on deceptive tactics to distort the facts:

  • State Sen. John Moolenaar accuses Paul Mitchell of “lining his pockets” with $100,000 in “Obama’s stimulus.” That’s grossly misleading. Michigan received funding to retrain laid-off workers, and a small slice of that went to pay tuition for training at an education center Mitchell once headed.
  • Mitchell says “Moolenaar authored the bill to fund Obamacare in Michigan.” That, too, is grossly misleading. It refers to the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Moolenaar chairs the subcommittee that writes the annual health care spending bill, which includes Medicaid. But he voted against the expansion.
  • Mitchell also claims Moolenaar “voted for $500 million in Obama’s stimulus funding.” That refers to a $6.8 billion spending bill — a fraction of which included stimulus aid — that received the support of all Republican senators. There was no separate vote on “Obama’s stimulus funding.”
  • Lastly, Mitchell claims Moolenaar “has voted to raise taxes and fees 160 times.” The Mitchell campaign pads the number by counting multiple votes on the same bills. We found it even includes legislation that cut taxes, could save money and had no fiscal impact.

Michigan’s 4th Congressional District is now represented by Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the powerful tax-writing panel known as the House Ways and Means Committee. But Camp’s announced retirement set off a costly battle for the Republican nomination. Mitchell has contributed $3.2 million of his own money — the second highest of any House candidate — to win the nomination. He has outspent Moolenaar by more than 5-to-1.

Lining Whose Pockets?

Mitchell has aired several TV ads that attack Moolenaar on the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus) and the state senator’s voting record on taxes and fees. Moolenaar responded with a TV ad that accused Mitchell of making false claims — and then committed his own whopper when he accused Mitchell of “lining his pockets with Obama’s stimulus.” We’ll start there.

Moolenaar’s ad, called “Stimulus,” shows a man dressed in a business suit sitting behind a desk, pushing a stack of bills toward the camera, while the announcer says, “Mitchell took 100 grand from Obama’s stimulus.”

On the screen, viewers see the words: “Mitchell took $100,000 from Obama’s stimulus.” The source of the claim: recovery.gov, the government website for the ARRA.

The Moolenaar campaign initially did not respond to our request for information, but we got help from a local fact-checking group at Bridge Magazine, a project of The Center for Michigan, which had been in contact with the campaign. Ron French, a senior writer at the magazine who previously worked at the Detroit News, forwarded us emails he received from the Moolenaar campaign. A day later, Moolenaar campaign manager Sarah Brooks got back to us and confirmed the information that it sent to French.

It turns out that the Moolenaar campaign is referring to payments of $45,899 and $47,519 that the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs made to Ross Medical Education Center. The payments totaling less than $100,000 were part of two large stimulus grants totaling $29 million in 2009 that the state department received from the federal Department of Labor to provide “employment related services” to approximately 1,650 laid-off workers in Michigan.

Mitchell joined Ross in 1985 and rose to become the company’s top executive, serving as CEO for six years through 2011. He left the company in 2012. Ross provides training for such health care careers as dental assistant, pharmacy technician and veterinary assistant.

The stimulus money helped pay for the tuition of laid-off workers who were seeking training in the medical field at Ross; it did not go to line Mitchell’s pockets.

Funding Obamacare?

Moolenaar’s misleading attack ad on the stimulus issue was in response to misleading ads from the Mitchell campaign. The most recent of Mitchell’s ads — which purport to highlight Moolenaar’s “signature accomplishments” — distorts Moolenaar’s record on three issues. We’ll start with the claim about the Affordable Care Act.

The Mitchell ad says, “Moolenaar authored the bill to fund Obamacare in Michigan.” That’s misleading.

The Mitchell campaign did not respond to our requests for information about the ad. But we know that the claim refers to Senate Bill 763 — a routine annual appropriations bill for health care spending — because on its website the campaign says in a blog post that “Moolenaar authored the bill (SB 763 of 2014; Moolenaar voted Yes (http://bit.ly/MoolVotes1) that made the Obamacare Medicare [sic] expansion possible in Michigan.” (The campaign meant Medicaid, not Medicare, as it said in the preceding paragraph of the same blog post.)

Senate Bill 763 funded the Department of Community Health for fiscal year 2015, providing $17.492 billion in total funding — including $12 billion in federal aid. Moolenaar introduced it on Feb. 11, 2014. That was his job as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for the Department of Community Health. The bill, of course, contained Medicaid funding, including money to pay for the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. It passed 32-5 in the Senate on May 6 with 25 Republican votes. Only one Republican – state Sen. Patrick Colbeck – voted against it.

By the Mitchell campaign’s logic, 25 of the 26 Republicans who voted for that bill were voting to make “the Obamacare Medicaid expansion possible in Michigan.” But that’s false. The bill that made the Medicaid expansion possible was introduced in 2013 and Moolenaar voted against it.

The Medicaid expansion bill – HB 4714 – passed the Senate 20-18 on Aug. 27, 2013. It took two tries for the Senate to get the 20 votes needed to pass the bill, and required votes from all 12 Democrats and eight Republicans. Eighteen Republicans voted against it — including 17 who would later vote for the Department of Community Health spending bill.

During floor debate on HB 4714, Moolenaar called the Medicaid expansion “the greatest expansion of government in our time.”

Detroit Free Press, Aug. 27, 2013: “Is now the time in our nation’s history to expand federal government entitlement spending?” asked Sen. John Moolenaar, R-Midland. “Today (Tuesday) we have the opportunity to say no to more crushing federal debt that burdens our children and grandchildren. And no to the greatest expansion of government in our time.”

Moolenaar, like the vast majority of Republican congressional candidates, opposes Obamacare. In fact, he signed a pledge on July 10 to repeal Obamacare. In its endorsement of Moolenaar, the Tea Party Express cited his vote against the Medicaid expansion as a reason for its support, in part because he was bucking his party’s leader, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who supported the bill’s passage and signed it into law.

Tea Party Express Executive Director Taylor Budowich said Moolenaar’s vote “showed courage to not only stand up to tax-and-spend liberals, but even members of his own party.”

At this point, the Medicaid expansion is a fait accompli in Michigan — unless the Legislature repeals it. Sarah Brooks, Moolenaar’s campaign manager, said the senator consulted with the nonpartisan State Fiscal Agency, which informed him that withholding money for the Medicaid expansion in the annual appropriations bill would not terminate the program. That could only be done through separate repeal legislation, per the state Constitution, according to a written response from the agency that was provided to us.

“Medicaid expansion was created by statute in Michigan,” Brooks said. “So an amendment to the budget bill would not supersede the statute.”

Voting for Stimulus?

The same ad misleads voters by saying Moolenaar “voted for $500 million in Obama’s stimulus funding.”

The campaign points to the senator’s vote in 2011 on Senate Bill 179 as evidence of Moolenaar’s support for the stimulus. The campaign’s website says: “According to michiganvotes.org, Senator Moolenaar voted for $549 million in Obama deficit stimulus funding when he voted for Senate Bill 179 on May 23, 2011.”

Senate Bill 179 was an annual appropriations bill for the state Department of Human Services. An analysis of the $6.83 billion bill by the State Fiscal Agency shows that the $549 million in stimulus funds — which represented about 8 percent of all spending in the bill — was not at issue, because it was included in the budget proposals of the governor, House and Senate.

The Senate gave the bill final approval, 26 to 11, on May 24, 2011, with all 26 Republican senators voting for it and 11 of 12 Democrats voting against it. (One Democrat did not vote.) Democrats objected to a provision of the $6.83 billion bill that would impose a retroactive 48-month lifetime limit on cash benefits, a change that the State Fiscal Agency projected would immediately reduce welfare rolls by 12,600 recipients and save the state $77.4 million.

MLive.com – a news website — wrote, “Democrats argued the 48-month cutoff, first approved by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, should be graduated over time so families wouldn’t lose the benefits immediately.”

Yet, by the Mitchell campaign’s logic, all 26 Republicans “voted for $500 million in Obama’s stimulus funding” and no Democrat supported the funding.

Voted for Taxes and Fees 160 Times?

The Mitchell ad also says Moolenaar “has voted to raise taxes and fees 160 times.” That’s an exaggeration. The campaign pads that figure by employing deceptive tactics that we labeled “tax tally trickery” many years ago.

On its website, the Mitchell campaign lists 170 votes over a 10-year period that includes six years in the House (2003 through 2008) and four years in the Senate (2011 through 2014). But 42 of the votes – about one-quarter of them — were procedural votes taken prior to the final vote, so the Mitchell campaign exaggerates the number by counting two or three votes on the same bill.

The list also was padded by including nonbinding resolutions, which have no power to raise taxes and fees.

In one case, the campaign listed a bill that was not a tax increase at all. In that case, the House in 2005 twice voted overwhelmingly — 96-9 and 100-6 — to eliminate a provision in existing law that would have forced the financially strapped city of Detroit to provide a refund to utility customers. That bill did not raise taxes or fees. It allowed Detroit to continue to charge the existing tax of 5 percent on electric, gas and phone bills to help pay for police and firefighters.

“Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said passage of the legislation was essential to maintaining adequate policing on Detroit’s streets, and that had it not passed, the city would have been forced to lay off additional police officers,” the Michigan Chronicle wrote.

The Mitchell campaign counts both votes, even though they were on the same bill and that bill did not raise taxes or fees.

The list even includes legislation designed to save money and cut taxes.

For example, the House voted 104-1 on Nov. 30, 2004, and 101-0 on Dec. 7, 2004, to allow local governments with populations of 100,000 or less to enter joint arrangements to provide fire and police services — arrangements that the State Fiscal Agency said “could save money” on “cost efficiencies.” But the Mitchell campaign includes both votes on its list because the bill also gave the cities power to impose a “special assessment” to pay for the joint services.

The Mitchell list also includes bills that were part of a tax-cut package negotiated between Republican leaders and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2005 that “trades off tax cuts with certain increased tax levies and other measures to create a net business tax cut,” according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy website Michigan Votes, cited by the Mitchell campaign.

In all, there were 12 bills (Senate Bill 633 and House Bills 4342, 4972, 4973, 4980, 5095, 4096, 5097, 5098, 5106, 5107, and 5108) in the package, according to the State Fiscal Agency’s analysis of the tax-cut package. The Mitchell campaign list includes 16 votes on seven of the bills that raised taxes or fees, but ignores Moolenaar’s votes on the five bills in the package that cut taxes. However, the Legislature tied the bills together, so that the tax hikes would not happen unless the tax cuts also took effect.

The State Fiscal Agency analysis projected that the 12-bill package would result in a net tax cut of nearly $500 million in the first six years of enactment.

There were also 22 votes on legislation that passed unanimously — including a 105-0 vote on Nov. 10, 2005, on a bill that repealed a sales tax exemption on goods purchased by prisoners. The State Fiscal Agency estimated the repeal would cost inmates $500,000 in sales taxes in fiscal year 2006, rising to $800,000 by fiscal 2009. That bill was part of the tax-cut package.

In the interest of time — the election is Aug. 5 — we did not review the language of all bills on Mitchell’s list. We reviewed more than half of them — all 69 votes in the 2003-2004 legislative session and all 37 in the 2005-2006 session. And we identified all votes that were procedural votes and all bills that were nonbinding resolutions.

We did find that Moolenaar cast many votes to raise fees — largely because the Michigan Legislature votes on each and every fee change, rather than making all the changes in a single budget bill. That was the case when the governor included $125.5 million in new and increased fees in her fiscal 2004 budget to address a revenue shortfall. The new revenue was included in the governor’s budget, but separate bills and separate votes were taken on each fee. For example, there was a bill that raised the license fee for private registered pesticide applicators that the State Fiscal Agency estimated would bring in only $130,000 in annual revenues.

More to the point, though, we found that the Mitchell campaign exaggerates the number of votes on tax and fee increases, and ignores votes that Moolenaar took to cut taxes and save money.

— Eugene Kiely