By Chris Comisac
And the reason? Because political campaigns have become less and less interested in the facts, or at least how they use factual data.
Two recent gubernatorial campaign ads, one from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s campaign, the other from Democrat Tom Wolf’s camp, are prime illustrations, although they aren’t the only examples.
You knew that at some point Wolf’s millionaire status would be the focal point of a Corbett campaign ad, and it happened within the last week or so, in the context of Wolf’s still-congealing income tax plan.
Wolf’s tax plan is far from settled, but it’s clear that most who file returns with taxable incomes greater than $75,000 have cause to worry their state income taxes could (assuming Wolf is elected and he can get what’s still likely to be a Republican-controlled Legislature, and maybe the state Supreme Court, to go along with the his idea) be going up – in some cases, for those in the higher taxable income brackets, exponentially – with significant questions unanswered about the impact of those tax hikes on small business owners.
The Corbett camp has started running a “Wolf wants to raise your tax rates when his rate is already far below yours”-type ad, calling Wolf a “hypocrite,” and claiming he paid an effective federal tax rate of 8 percent when average Pennsylvanians paid 18.1 percent.
Sounds pretty harsh, but they are using Wolf’s own tax returns and numbers from a Congressional Budget Office report (the most recent available from the federal government) … just, at least by my estimation, not the right ones, and not in the right way.
As some of my other Capitol newsroom colleagues are also likely pointing out, if you take a closer look at the CBO report, the Corbett campaign appears to be stretching when making the assertions they made about Wolf’s tax rate.
The 18.1-percent tax rate cited in the Corbett ad represents the CBO’s measurement of the major types of federal taxation (federal income taxes, social insurance taxes, corporate income taxes and excise taxes) paid in 2010 by the average American household, not just the federal income tax rate paid. But the Corbett campaign’s claim that Wolf paid only an 8-percent rate isn’t entirely based on the information the CBO report collected to develop its tax rate data.
“Wolf’s taxes paid include more than just his personal income tax,” wrote Corbett campaign spokesman Bill Pitman in an email explaining the ad’s 8-percent tax rate claim. “Though Wolf has refused to publicly release his returns, we understand from speaking to members of the press that have seen them that he reported paying self-employment tax (which falls under social insurance), capital gains, and other taxes, as his returns are fairly complex because of the nature of his income.”
“We further added in the payroll taxes he would have been required to pay on his wages (Medicaid and Social Security taxes),” explained Pitman. “Adding these figures in brought his 2010 tax rate to 8 percent.”
Pitman also said they used the CBO report because it was, in their opinion, a better study than those which only included income taxes “because of his [Wolf’s] payment of taxes such as the self-employment tax, which is not included in the income tax calculation.”
Whether that’s the case or not, the CBO does include other taxes paid – ones not considered by the Corbett campaign – when it calculated the 18.1-percent federal tax rate for the average American household, like corporate taxes and excise taxes. So, despite the attempt at an “apples to apples comparison” by the Corbett campaign, the 8-percent Wolf figure isn’t calculated the same way as the 18.1-percent CBO figure.
And the CBO clearly defines how it determined the income tax rate data: “… by dividing federal tax liabilities by before-tax income,” or, in the case of the federal income tax rate, the household’s before-tax reported income divided by the total amount of income tax paid by the household.
Applying that calculation to the 2010 federal personal income tax return information supplied by Wolf, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate had a federal income tax rate of 7.3 percent in 2010 (he paid $107,824 in federal income taxes on a reported total income of $1,468,996). The CBO report illustrates the federal income tax rate paid by an average American household in 2010 was 7.7 percent.
While it’s not 18.1 percent compared to 8 percent – which makes for a very stark graphical contrast in a television ad – he still paid a rate below that of the average American household. And to drive that point home further, the average American household reported a taxable income of $92,000, not the nearly $1.5 million Wolf reported in 2010. Plus, that $92,000 household income for the average taxpayer puts that household well above the line of what Wolf’s still-sketchy state income tax plan considers “wealthy.” The Corbett camp also could have mentioned that Wolf paid far less in federal income taxes than his peers in the top 1 percent of income earners identified in the CBO report: the average 1-percenter paid a federal income tax rate of 20.1 percent in 2010.
So I asked the Corbett campaign why they didn’t just use those numbers, instead of coming up with a far-less-reliable calculation that isn’t an “apples to apples” comparison to the 18.1-percent figure.
Responded Pitman: “We’re comfortable with our figures. What’s uncomfortable is that Tom Wolf is running on a ‘Higher Taxes Now’ platform. He is a multi-millionaire who is advocating for higher taxes and burdens on small businesses and middle class families, while paying a much lower tax rate than the average taxpayer.”
And the ad could have stated just that, and simply used the income tax figures without going overboard with that more-than-questionable 18.1-percent comparison … a comparison which drew a fairly quick response from the Wolf campaign.
But a response – a campaign ad featuring Wolf himself speaking to the camera – that failed to address the income tax, state or federal, issue brought up by the Corbett campaign.
Instead Wolf continued to characterize Corbett as a cutter of education funding – which most media outlets, including Capitolwire, have shown to be, at the very least, more “in the eye of the beholder” than a fact – forcing local property taxes higher (although Wolf fails to mention public pensions as a major contributing factor of those higher taxes).
He also took Corbett to task for not imposing a severance tax on shale, although the existing impact fee is, in fact, a severance tax (the Corbett administration has shied away from applying the “tax” title to anything, even when it is a tax). It’s just not a tax that generates revenue in the amount Wolf would prefer, which is certainly fair game for criticism. However, the Wolf campaign has played coy about how much revenue they want to generate from such a tax.
But the attack in the ad that just seemed to test the bounds of credulity was Wolf’s shot at Corbett for raising gas taxes by 28 cents.
First, gas prices have not gone up 28 cents since the adoption of the gas tax (Act 89 of 2013); second, Act 89 did eliminate the 12-cent retail gas tax; and, finally, there’s no guarantee lifting the cap on the tax on wholesale gas prices will ever result in such an increase.
The 28-cent gas-price-hike estimate is based upon the wholesale price of gas in 2018. Do you know what the wholesale price of gas will be four years from now?
Maybe the tax increase ends up higher, maybe it ends up lower, and maybe no one notices in this era of gas costing more than $3 a gallon, with the price fluctuating by 10 to 15 cents during the course of a week or two. If you were wondering, the website GasBuddy.com indicates Pennsylvania’s average regular gas price is currently a few cents higher than the national average, just like it was a year ago – however today’s gas price is lower than last year’s price.
But in addition to that obvious flaw in Wolf’s critique, Wolf is condemning Corbett for something Wolf, himself, has praised (and I’ll let the Corbett campaign explain in their own words, dated Aug. 12): “Wolf must be referring to the bipartisan transportation bill that Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law last fall and that eliminated the retail gas tax at the pump. Just yesterday, Wolf praised Gov. Tom Corbett’s work on the bipartisan transportation bill. In fact, even Wolf’s running mate, Mike Stack, supported the legislation.”
Sure Corbett promised not to raise taxes, and there’s a likelihood that Act 89 could produce higher taxes on gas, so Corbett opened himself up for some criticism regarding the promise.
But Wolf praised the work done by the governor and the Legislature regarding the gas tax – which will eventually generate about $2.4 billion annually to maintain the state’s roads and bridges – so criticizing the effort itself (and using a soft estimate of the potential tax hike) does seem, as the Corbett campaign has argued, a bit hypocritical.
I asked the Wolf campaign about the ad, and specifically about the apparent disconnect between what Wolf said on one day and then what he says in his ad about the gas tax, as well as clarification of what the Wolf campaign considers to be a “reasonable” severance tax (meaning a ballpark idea of how much they hope to generate in revenue).
Wolf spokesman Mark Nicastre offered the following response: “Tom Corbett is a hypocrite who continues to launch false attacks and lie about Tom Wolf. Tom Corbett raised taxes on the middle class – his failed policies have forced school districts across the state to increase property taxes and he raised the gas tax through the roof.
“To make matters worse, Tom Corbett let his donors off the hook by refusing to support a reasonable severance tax on the oil and gas industry. Tom Wolf knows that for Pennsylvania to be a leader today and in the future, we need to expand our thinking beyond fixing the roads and bridges and start focusing on building a 21st century infrastructure.
“The ad was not about the transportation bill. The ad is about Tom Corbett’s hypocrisy.
Tom Corbett told Pennsylvanians that he would not increase taxes, but he did. He is also lying when he attacks Tom Wolf on the issue of taxes.”
So, to summarize, the Wolf campaign just did a “I know you are but what am I” response to the Corbett campaign ad, when the Corbett ad could have been blunted by simply pointing out the errors of the ad (calling someone a “hypocrite” and accusing them of lying isn’t identifying errors); that Wolf during the last two years, paid federal income tax rates in excess of the CBO-estimated rates average taxpaying households paid; and, at least in 2013, Wolf paid basically the same rate that other 1 percenters paid (according to CBO estimates).
And my attempts to better understand the apparent disconnect between what Wolf told one group of people and what he said in his own television ad about the gas tax yielded no enlightenment. A subsequent request for an answer to my actual questions received no reply from the Wolf campaign.
Apparently, as long as lies are being spread by the Corbett campaign – according to the Wolf campaign – it’s more than fair for the Wolf campaign to be inconsistent, opaque and equally loose with the facts. Sounds like a different kind of politician … not really.
So with these two recent ads (and other past exaggerative ads from both campaigns) as evidence, it looks like we’ve got plenty more fact-checking in our future, unless the two campaigns decide to stop operating as they have.
With less than three months to go before the Nov. 4 General Election, I’m not holding my breath.
Chris Comisac is Bureau Chief at Capitolwire.