A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Corbett’s Desperation and Deceit


We’ve noticed that the most deceitful attack ads often come from candidates who are most desperate. For example, consider the claim by Pennsylvania’s unpopular Republican Gov. Tom Corbett that his opponent “is promising to raise middle-class taxes,” when in fact Democratic nominee Tom Wolf promises to cut them.

Wolf has proposed increasing the state’s income tax — but only for those making more than roughly $70,000 to $90,000 per year for individuals, or more than $140,000 to $180,000 for married couples. For the large majority of Pennsylvanians, whose incomes fall below those levels, Wolf proposes to reduce or eliminate the income tax.

Furthermore, Wolf also proposes to cut local property taxes, shifting more of the burden of financing schools to the state. That would be an additional benefit to homeowners.

But Corbett is trailing by wide margins in the polls, as he has been for many weeks. And now, with Election Day just three weeks away, he’s twisting Wolf’s proposal around nearly 180 degrees in ads calling it a tax increase on “middle-class” families.

Corbett’s campaign released a 30-second TV spot on Oct. 7 claiming that Wolf is “calling for raising taxes on middle-class families.” That followed a 45-second ad released Sept. 30 that made the same claim, even though Wolf had been saying just the opposite for months.

Corbett even adds insult to injury by calling Wolf “dishonest” in one of those ads, which itself misrepresents Wolf’s business dealings.

Who’s Being ‘Dishonest’?

But it is Corbett who’s being dishonest here. He knows exactly what Wolf is proposing, because he was standing only a few feet away from him during an Oct. 8 debate in which Wolf sketched out his plan.

Wolf said (starting at about 23 minutes into the recording): “If you are in the seventy to ninety thousand dollar range as an individual — and you can double that if you are married — you should not pay any more in taxes. And people making below that will get a break. That’s my goal.”

And that is consistent with what Wolf has been saying as far back as February, when he released a “Fresh Start” campaign white paper that included a promise of a “progressive income tax” that “will result in every middle-class family receiving a tax cut.” But the initial plan didn’t define “middle class” or give an income level.

In later interviews, including a July 25 session with Associated Press reporters and editors, Wolf specified that the “middle-class” cutoff would come somewhere between $70,000 and $90,000 in annual income. Later, his campaign said that would be just for single taxpayers, and the income level would be double that for married couples filing jointly. In the Oct. 8 debate, Wolf confirmed the $140,000-$180,000 range as the likely cutoff for couples.

By way of background, Pennsylvania currently imposes a flat 3.07 percent income tax on all taxable income, allowing for a hodgepodge of deductions but with no standard exemption or exclusion. Wolf says he would institute a universal exclusion, exempting all income below a certain level from any income tax. And he would increase the percentage tax rate on income above that level.

Wolf hasn’t yet specified exactly how large that exemption would be, or how much he would increase the 3.07 percent tax bite on income above the exemption level. He also has not been pinned down on precisely at what income level Pennsylvanians would see an increase — except to say that the cut-off would fall somewhere in the $70,000 to $90,000 range for individuals, or the $140,000 to $180,000 range for couples.

The Corbett campaign says the rate would have to go up by 188 percent to accomplish Wolf’s goal of shouldering a greater share of school spending. But Wolf, who served as revenue secretary under then-Gov. Ed Rendell, says those details would have to wait until he’s in office and has access to more detailed information on the state’s financial status, and on “what everybody pays in taxes.”

Actually, some information on who pays how much state income tax is publicly available already. Even so, Wolf’s stated intent could not be more clear: The income tax would go down for most, and go up only for the relative few with higher incomes. And the outline he has given is quite consistent with that goal.

Even if Wolf provides a tax break only to those at the lower end of the income ranges he has mentioned, many more people would see an income tax cut than would see an increase. We know this because the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that two-thirds of all households in Pennsylvania reported income of less than $75,000 last year, and all of those would see income taxes reduced or eliminated if Wolf sets his cut-off at that level, which is on the low side of the $70,000-$90,000 range for individuals.

Even fewer taxpayers would see an increase if Wolf eventually were to set the cut-off at closer to $90,000.

Looking only at married-couple families in Pennsylvania, Census reports that 16.5 percent had income of $150,000 or more, which is also at the lower end of Wolf’s $140,000 to $180,000 range for couples filing jointly. And yet, Corbett’s ads keep calling the Wolf proposal a tax increase on middle-class taxpayers, rather than the tax cut he promises for most.

We freely concede that some Pennsylvanians who think of themselves as “middle class” have incomes higher than the levels described by Wolf, and they would see their taxes go up. A USA Today/Gallup Poll found in 2012 that only 2 percent of Americans considered themselves to be “upper class” and only 10 percent identified themselves as “lower class.” The rest described themselves as “middle class” (42 percent), “upper middle class” (13 percent) or “working class” (31 percent).

Both candidates are exploiting the tendency of egalitarian Americans to think of themselves as in the “middle” no matter how high or low their actual incomes. So Wolf’s promise of an income tax cut for “every” middle-class family is true only for those who accept his particular income definition of “middle class.” But Corbett’s ads strive to give the impression that Wolf is proposing an income tax increase for everybody who considers himself “middle class.” And that’s not the case.

Failed Attempts at Justification

The Corbett campaign strains — and fails — to justify turning a proposed cut into a promised increase. One example is a citation in the 45-second ad, which includes a truncated, misleading quote from a political news website called PoliticsPA.com. On screen viewers see, “Wolf Calls for Income Tax Increase.” What viewers are not shown is the rest of the headline: “[and] Reduction of Property Taxes.”  

And even that full headline lacks important detail; it is a secondhand account of the AP’s July 25 interview. The AP’s own headline gave a more detailed and accurate description of Wolf’s position: “Tom Wolf says richer Pennsylvanians to pay more income taxes to lower property taxes.” But that headline didn’t suit the Corbett campaign’s purposes, and so it used the less accurate and less authoritative snippet.

Another example of failed justification is in the backup provided by the Corbett campaign for its more recent ad. The campaign says, “The $70,000-$90,000 range is well within the middle class in Pennsylvania.” Oh really? To back that up, the Corbett campaign cites median income figures for the three most affluent counties in the state — Chester ($86,184), Montgomery ($78,984) and Bucks ($76,859) — while ignoring the state’s 64 other counties with lower median incomes.

There’s no mention, for example, of Fayette County, with median income of only $38,108. Such cherry-picked data can’t change the fact that a small percentage of Pennsylvania taxpayers would see an income tax increase under Wolf’s plan, while the large majority would see a decrease.

More False Mudslinging

Also worth noting is that the more recent Corbett ad gives yet another distorted account of Wolf’s business dealings, which we dealt with in detail on previous occasions when two of his Democratic primary rivals attempted to raise them in different ways during that election. (Wolf won the primary with nearly 58 percent of the party vote.)

The Corbett ad claims that Wolf got rich “off the backs of middle-class taxpayers.” How? The ad says “millions from the state’s pension fund were funneled into Wolf’s company” and that “after Wolf pocketed the money” the company laid off workers, and “to this day hard-working Pennsylvania taxpayers have never been repaid.”

The facts as we outlined them before are these: Wolf was part owner of the Wolf Organization, a kitchen cabinet and building supply company that had been in the family since its founding in 1843. Wolf and his cousins sold 47 percent of the firm in 2006 — not to the state pension fund — but to Weston Presidio Fund V. As we reported, the state pension fund was one of many investors in the diversified Fund V, and owned only 5 percent of the $1 billion investment fund.

The ad claims that Wolf “laid off his workers,” but that’s not accurate. The company’s troubles resulted from the 2007 financial crisis and the collapse of the housing bubble that year, which took place after Wolf was no longer in charge.  And not mentioned in the Corbett ad is that of the $20 million that Wolf “pocketed” from the sale, he later reinvested $11 million to regain day-to-day control of the firm — saving it from foreclosure. The paper loss to the state pension fund would have been even greater had the company gone into foreclosure.

So when the Corbett ad says, “Tom Wolf, the more you learn the more dishonest he seems,” we can’t help thinking that the governor should take a look in the nearest available mirror.

— Brooks Jackson