Fact-check fail: Iowa journalists blow off Branstad's lies and hypocrisy

Terry Branstad launched a new campaign ad on Tuesday. Like his previous commercials, the “Big Bad Debt” spot strings together a bunch of numbers (some of them wrong) to create the false impression that Iowa’s in bad fiscal shape.

The commercial invites a lot of tough questions journalists could be asking the Branstad campaign, such as:

Why do you keep claiming Iowa has a $1 billion budget deficit when the state budget is balanced?

Why do you keep citing months-old warnings about Iowa’s “budget cliff” when the latest revenue collections were stronger than projected, and the ending balance for fiscal year 2010 will be much larger than expected?

Why are you still using inflated estimates for the I-JOBS repayment costs, when you know the bonds were sold at lower interest rates more than a year ago?

You keep attacking $2.5 billion in “overspending,” alluding to federal stimulus money and funding from the state reserves. How would you balance the state budget without accepting any federal stimulus money or using state reserve funds?

Why are you making the I-JOBS borrowing the centerpiece of your case against Culver when Branstad also borrowed to fund infrastructure projects when he was governor, and sometimes had to borrow money to address the state’s cash-flow problems?

Why are you bragging about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s upcoming Iowa visit when Christie presided over more state borrowing in his first year than Culver has in his whole term?

The ad is after the jump, along with the kind of scrutiny Iowa’s media should be providing.

Transcript provided by the Branstad campaign:

Chorus: Big Debt -Mmmmmm mmmmm

Anncr: Here in Iowa, we call our Governor Chet

Said he give us jobs but what we got was big debt.

Chorus: Big Debt – Big bad Debt.

Anncr: His I jobs plan’s more than a Billion in cost.

While thousands of Iowans have jobs that are lost.

And Ole’ Chet’s spent a couple BILLION more’n he’s taken in

Pushin’ property taxes so high it’s a sin

Chorus: Big debt.

Anncr: That’s all we get from old Governor Chet – (big debt. )

Chorus: Big bad debt.

The whole concept of this ad is misleading, because even with I-JOBS, Iowa’s debt load is quite low by national standards. As for many of the specific claims, I get tired of repeating myself when it comes to Branstad’s lies about the “budget deficit” and other things. The Culver campaign released a detailed fact-check on September 7, refuting several claims that appear on screen but don’t show up in the transcript:

Fact Check on “Big, Bad Debt”

The new Branstad ad is a parody of the Jimmy Dean classic “Big, Bad John.” The song is about a big, strong man who is less than perfect but who gives his all to protect his fellow miners against a mine cave-in. Chet Culver is a big, strong man, who while not getting everything right, has given his all to protect his fellow Iowans against the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and the worst natural disaster in our state’s history. The ad is also filled with statistics that media fact-checkers have already labeled as “misleading” and “misrepresentations.” Further, Branstad shows his true colors in this ad: He is opposed to aiding flood victims, rebuilding the state’s roads and bridges and other infrastructure, protecting vital services like education. If Branstad believes the state spent $2.5 billion too much, he should state with specificity what $2.5 billion he would have cut. Then, the people of Iowa can decide.

CLAIM #1: “Vaudt: Iowa on Budget Cliff Reporter 4/23/10”

FACT #1: Dave Vaudt’s claim is based on his theory that Iowa should reject one-time funding such as assistance from the federal government and not use its rainy day funds, which were explicitly created for this purpose. The fact is the budget has been balanced each and every day Chet Culver has been Governor. Unlike Terry Branstad, Chet Culver has always closed any and all so-called projected budget gaps. Terry Branstad ran deficits for at least twelve of the years he was Governor.

CLAIM #2: “Iowa Deficit = $1 billion Iowapolitics.com 4/23/10”

FACT #2: Unlike when Terry Branstad was Governor, Iowa does not have a deficit and never had under Chet Culver’s leadership. Also, the citation here is misleading. It’s not to a story by Iowapolitics.com but instead to a press release from Republican Senate Leader Paul McKinley and State Auditor David Vaudt. Hardly non-partisan sources.

CLAIM #3: “Big, Bad Debt”

FACT #3: Chet Culver has invested in Iowa’s infrastructure in order to lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth and help flood impacted communities recover today. Businesses choose to locate where they can be protected from floods, are served by rapid emergency response, are served by high-quality transportation links, and their employees are offered quality-of-life attractions. In contrast, Terry Branstad is the one with big, bad debt: $4.3 billion of it, more than $3 billion of it to paper over illegal deficits.

CLAIM #4: “I-Jobs $1.7 billion – LSA”

FACT #4: The figure he is citing is an old estimate and is misleading. I-JOBS will cost about $1.1 billion because unlike Branstad, Governor Culver earned a triple-A bond rating with the resulting low interest rates. More importantly, it will help Iowa’s communities grow in the long-term. Branstad also fails to acknowledge that I-JOBS will help Iowa avoid rising construction costs.

CLAIM #5: “Over 50,000 unemployed since 2007. – Iowa Workforce Development July 2010”

FACT #5: Every single state in the nation has lost jobs during that time due to the Bush Recession. What Branstad fails to point out is that Iowa has the ninth lowest unemployment in the nation.

CLAIM #6: “Tax Bill: Overspent $2.5 billion – State Auditor Vaudt”

FACT #6: Chet Culver didn’t overspend anything. This number counts rainy day fund spending, which was created to help the state during economic downturns, federal Recovery Act funds that were also passed for this purpose, and reserve account spending to assist flood victims. Vaudt is not a credible source. Iowa’s budget has been balanced every day Chet Culver has been Governor. The teachers, the flood victims, and others that were saved don’t characterize this as overspending. They would say it is necessary and vital.

CLAIM #7: “Property Tax Hike: $500 million – DMR 1/20/10”

FACT #7: The article Branstad cites doesn’t saying anything about a $500 million property tax hike. It’s a claim he’s never been able to substantiate.

CLAIM #8: “State budget gap, 10th worst in the nation. – CNBC.com”

FACT #8: This is again referring to outdated information relating to projected FY 2011 budget gaps. Governor Culver closed this gap and balanced the fiscal year 2011 budget. This is something Terry Branstad couldn’t do for at least twelve of his years as Governor. Branstad knows this is all false.

As I noted near the top of this post, the “big bad debt” commercials gives journalists a lot of angles to question Branstad and his campaign staff. Why is he still citing I-JOBS cost estimates from early 2009 and budget gap estimates from fall 2009 instead of more recent data reflecting Iowa’s real fiscal condition? The state legislature accounted for the projected budget gap during the 2010 legislative session and made the necessary adjustments to balance the current-year budget.

Branstad borrowed $335 Million in 1992 just to meet the state’s ongoing spending obligations. Iowa literally had nothing to show for that borrowing but interest payments. In contrast, 100 percent of Culver’s borrowing has gone toward capital investments that will benefit many Iowa communities in the long-term.

If any journalist has asked Branstad those or other tough questions this week, I haven’t seen it. Mostly I saw straight reports describing the new Branstad ad. Kathie Obradovich analyzed the commercial somewhat, pondering whether the spot is really a dig at Culver’s weight. But look at how she avoided dealing with one of the lies in the ad:

My guess is that he was referring to Branstad’s new ad, which at one point refers to Culver as “Big Debt Chet.” I had assumed the “big” referred to “debt.” But Culver maybe would rather embrace “big” to describe himself  than the state debt. He argues that Branstad is using an outdated figure for the I-JOBS bonding – it’s really only about $1 billion instead of $1.7 billion because interest rates were lower than projected.

Hoo boy. Just what we need is a debate over who is name-calling. Well, I’ll go along with Culver on one point: He’d be lucky to have the votes of all Iowans who need to lose a few pounds. He’s finally found the silver lining to the state’s obesity rate.

Are you kidding me? The political columnist for the Des Moines Register says the real debate here is who is name-calling? It’s not Culver arguing that Branstad is using an outdated figure–the bonds were sold more than a year ago. It’s indisputable: Branstad is using numbers he knows to be false in his own commercials.

This reminds me of last summer, when a different gubernatorial candidate lied about I-JOBS supposedly being used to pay the state’s bills. That false claim got the full “he said, she said” treatment at IowaPolitics.com instead of the fact-checking it deserved.

Not being a mind-reader, I have no idea why journalists covering the Iowa governor’s race are not holding Branstad accountable for the claims in his own advertising. They could be too busy or lazy. Maybe they think fact-checking isn’t an interesting hook for a story. Perhaps they fear being accused of the dreaded “liberal bias,” or losing access to powerful sources if Branstad wins the November election.

Whatever the reason, it’s inexcusable to let the Branstad campaign keep misleading the public.

UPDATE: Good grief, the Register’s political reporter Thomas Beaumont found the time to write a blog post about Branstad saying “IUDs” at a campaign stop, when he meant to say “IEDs.” Who cares?

The same day that happened, Branstad’s campaign was shouting to the world that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will headline a fundraiser for Branstad next month. New Jersey is is in the top five states for per capita debt load, while Iowa is near the bottom. Christie signed off on a huge state bond issue this spring; around $500 million will be used to build schools, and a whopping $665 million will cover “debt payments pushed into the future.” Instead of writing about Branstad’s slip of the tongue, Beaumont should ask Mr. “pay as you go” why he would tout Christie’s leadership while his commercials slam Culver’s “big bad debt.”

UPDATE: Kudos to political cartoonist Brian Duffy for his animated take on the Branstad commercial, which you can view on the KCCI website. Last line: “This ad was paid for by ‘Two Books’ Terry for governor campaign.”

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  • Don't know for sure if political reporting used to be more substantive

    But I wonder if journos are taking cues from similarly content-free cable “news” shows.

    Certainly horse race stuff, weight problems and gaffes are easier to cover than public finance. Probably more interesting to read about as well for average person. I suppose at one time DMR writers saw part of their task as to explain and inform. On the other hand I feel like I’ve been reading laments about the press’s tendency to cover horse race stuff my entire life.

    Anyway thanks for doing the fact-checking.