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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Misleading on Education Cuts in Louisiana

A new ad from Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu takes liberties with the facts to make the claim that her opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, “voted to cut $86 million from Louisiana schools.”

Cassidy voted for a Republican budget that called for deep cuts to nondefense discretionary spending. The ad assumes cuts would be made equally across-the-board and concludes that Louisiana’s share would come to $86 million worth of cuts to special education, and elementary and secondary school funding this year.

The problem is that neither Republican leaders, nor Cassidy himself, made clear where the cuts would come from in the budget, and there was no mandate that all government programs be cut equally. So, in theory, the cuts could have been made from other programs without any cuts to education at all.

Landrieu and Cassidy are facing each other in a Dec. 6 runoff election. Although Cassidy and his backers have dominated the TV air wars since the general election, this latest ad from Landrieu shows she’s still in the game.

The Landrieu ad begins with images of Louisiana mother Gayle Croxton walking her children to school.

“Every morning I say a prayer for my kids,” Croxton says. “I just want them to be happy and to do their best. Bill Cassidy is a doctor, but he still voted in Congress to cut $86 million from Louisiana schools to pay for a tax break for millionaires like himself. I don’t know what kind of doctor would do that to my kids.”

Landrieu then says she approves the message “because Louisiana’s children should never pay the price for a millionaire’s tax cut.”

In small print, the ad cites Cassidy’s vote for the Republican House budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan for fiscal 2013, which passed largely along partisan lines 228-191 with every Democrat in the House and 10 Republicans voting against it. But there’s no reference to an education cut in the budget blueprint.

A second citation in the ad points to an April 6, 2012, White House analysis that purports to document the “Consequences of Ryan Republican Budget for Education.” The analysis claims the budget would result in $86.5 million worth of cuts to elementary and secondary education, as well as special education, in Louisiana in academic year 2014-2015.

A March 21, 2012, blog posting from Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, explains the math. The House budget plan, he said, would cut annual nondefense funding by 5 percent in 2013, but by 19 percent in 2014.

“What would it all mean?” Zients wrote. “The Budget doesn’t say. In fact, the Budget resolution includes a magic asterisk — or, in more technical parlance, an ‘allowance’— for $897 billion in unspecified cuts. But what could the resolution mean? Since the House has refused to specify what would be cut, we consider the impacts if the cuts are distributed equally across the Budget.”

The italics emphasizing the word “could” is from Zients, not us. But it is a crucial qualifier. Assuming the cuts were made equally across-the-board, he wrote, the Department of Education would be cut by more than $115 billion over a decade.

The problem is that the budget doesn’t say how the cuts would be made, or whether they might include education. So it is wrong to call it a vote to cut “$86 million from Louisiana schools.”

We reached out to the Cassidy campaign to see if Cassidy supported cuts to education, or would have supported deeper cuts to other areas of the discretionary budget instead, but we did not hear back.

In one of the debates before the general election, Cassidy was asked what role the federal government should play in K-12 education (beginning at the 34:24 mark).

Cassidy, Oct. 14: He who governs best is the one that governs closest to the child. And it should be the mother … or the father that makes the most decisions about a child’s education. And then it should be the school board and the state. The federal government should merely play a role of making sure that if there are federal funds dispersed to the states, there’s not fraud, ideally being a best practices sort of model. As it turns out now, the federal government will pick and choose as to what programs to endorse. I think that’s wrong.

That doesn’t make clear whether or how deeply Cassidy would consider cutting the federal education budget.

That kind of ambiguity may be frustrating for the Landrieu campaign, but that doesn’t give it carte blanche to fill in the blanks and make assumptions that the budget would have cut popular spending like education.

As for the claim that cuts were made to provide a tax break to millionaires, the Ryan budget called for consolidating the  individual income tax brackets into just two brackets of 10 percent and 25 percent. The top bracket at the time was 35 percent, but it went back up to 39.6 percent more than a year ago — for singles making more than $400,000 a year or couples making more than $450,000. The increase was part of the “fiscal cliff” package that Congress passed on New Year’s Day of 2013.

We should also note that the ad says education cuts would “pay for a tax break for millionaires like himself.” Cassidy ranks 171st in the House with an estimated net worth of about $1.6 million in 2012 (slightly less than Landrieu’s estimated net worth of about $1.8 million). In the context of the tax plans, though, millionaires are those who have income of more than $1 million a year. Cassidy’s only reported income is his congressional salary of $174,000 plus $20,000 he earns as a teacher at LSU Health Sciences Center (which he says in his Financial Disclosure Report “merely covers his expenses”).

— Robert Farley