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Michigan Truth Squad: Koch brothers group attacks Gretchen Whitmer’s tax votes

Gretchen Whitmer
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Gretchen Whitmer was quick to turn an attack ad into a fundraising opportunity, using the Americans for Prosperity’s well-known benefactors, David and Charles Koch, as a reason to support her campaign";

Americans For Prosperity, a national conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, has bought an online-only ad targeting Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan gubernatorial campaign, claiming she has supported tax increases that hurt the state.

Turns out, Whitmer, a leading Democratic candidate, doesn’t seem to mind.

For AFP and Charles and David Koch, Whitmer’s candidacy offers up a juicy pro-tax pinata to take a swing at: She voted for key increases – including a 2007 income tax hike – during her time in the legislature that links her to the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Both are Democrats, and during Granholm’s tenure the state lost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Yet for Whitmer, AFP’s attention is its own prize: The Koch brothers, who have made their fortune heading a corporation that makes everything from disposable cups to toilet paper to jet fuel, have bankrolled conservative candidates and causes for years, making them a near unanimous enemy of Democratic voters.

Americans for Prosperity, hugely influential in shaping the national conservative agenda, including its antipathy toward higher taxes and the science of climate change, is expected to spend up to $400 million nationally on midterm elections. But, as progressives will note, it also backed the agenda of former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, whose “experiment” with tax and spending cuts created so much budget turmoil in Kansas that its GOP legislature decided to override a Brownback veto and approve higher taxes.

So it’s no surprise AFP would spend money on a Michigan ad that rips Whitmer. And perhaps it’s no surprise Whitmer would use those ads to seek donations from her own supporters.

Truth Squad finds that the ad accurately summarizes Whitmer’s tax votes, but then makes the unsupported inference that they explain Michigan’s harsh recession and job losses during the 2000s. We rate the ad half-accurate.

The claim:

The ad opens with a woman trying to start a car, as a narrator says, “For 14 years, Gretchen Whitmer’s policies failed to jumpstart Michigan’s economy.” It points out several Whitmer votes in the Michigan Senate to raise taxes and ends with: “Gretchen Whitmer’s policies drove Michigan’s economic engine into the ground. Why would we put her back at the wheel?”

The facts:

The stated facts in the ad check out: Whitmer did support a 2007 income tax increase, which raised the rate from 3.9 percent to 4.35 percent. She supported levying sales taxes on a broader array of services, from landscaping to massages in 200. She supported addition of a surcharge to the Michigan Business Tax (which repealed the broadening of the sales tax). And she supported raising the gas tax in 2014.

The ad notes this happened during a decade when Michigan lost some 574,000 jobs and state unemployment hit 14.6 percent (Again, both true. Unemployment hit 14.6 in June 2009. And from August 2005 through December 2009, the state lost that many jobs). Granholm was governor and Whitmer was a state senator during that period.

It’s not the job of political ads to tell both sides of a story. They are designed to sway the reader or viewer. But before voters get to the ballot box, context is necessary and it will be Whitmer’s job on the campaign trail – and at debates – to provide that context and explain her tax votes.

Whitmer’s camp clearly anticipated the attack linking Whitmer to Granholm. Within a few hours of being asked about the ad, it supplied Truth Squad with detailed explanations of Whitmer’s votes – and evidence that she also voted against Granholm on a number of occasions.

As Whitmer’s team notes, here’s what Michigan faced in 2007: The state had the nation’s highest unemployment rate, home foreclosures were rising, home building was plummeting – all of which put huge pressure on the state budget. The government shut down for four hours preceding the income tax vote.

The tax increase erased a $1.75 billion deficit and the legislative package included $440 million in cuts, including no inflationary increases for higher education. The vote passed in the Democratic-heavy House and passed 19-19 in the Senate, with Lt. Gov. John Cherry breaking the tie in favor of the tax hike. Twelve Democrats, including Whitmer, and four Republicans supported the measure; two Democrats and 17 Republicans voted against it.

As for the claim she supported a tax increase on “everyday services,” it is true. But as the Whitmer campaign notes (and the ad doesn’t), the increase was soon repealed – and Whitmer supported the repeal.

Still, Whitmer’s explanations for her votes are almost beside the point for Truth Squad. The ad notes Whitmer’s votes for tax increases and it states those votes accurately. But after stating those facts, the ad turns misleading: It leaves viewers with the impression those tax hikes were to blame for the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, saying her policies “drove Michigan’s economic engine into the ground.”

None of the claims about Whitmer's voting record are in dispute, but it reaches an overly simplistic conclusion that ignores seismic financial forces that crippled an already reeling state economy.

The ad does not mention, so we will, that Michigan was hemorrhaging jobs before Granholm took office (330,000 jobs lost from its peak in March 2000, when Republican Gov. John Engler was in office, to January 2003.)

More critically, it does not acknowledge the impact of the Great Recession, which hit Michigan before it had recovered from its own “one-state recession.” The recession hurt all sectors, like housing and retail, but it crushed the auto industry, upon which Metro Detroit and Michigan rely heavily. Output fell 20 percent and employment 15 percent in 2008-2009 and the state’s deepest job losses occurred then.

AFP would have voters believe Michigan’s economic plummet was largely the result of Democratic policies.

AFP’s ad is likely just the first to tell Michigan voters that the state’s uniquely steep decline was “self-inflicted,” by Democratic policies. None of the claims about Whitmer’s voting record are in dispute, but it reaches an overly simplistic conclusion that ignores seismic financial forces that crippled an already reeling state economy.

Faced with a tough call, Truth Squad finds the ad half-accurate. Still, it will be Whitmer’s task, should she win the Democratic nomination, to broaden and flesh out the “she-voted-for-tax-increases” portrait AFP has painted her with.

She should get her brushes ready.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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