Romney’s claim that the federal government doesn’t pay for teachers, firefighters, police

at 11:03 AM ET, 06/15/2012

Brian Kilmeade: “He [President Obama] says you’re out of touch. He says you want to cut firefighters and teachers, that you don’t understand what’s going on in these communities. What do you say to that, Governor?”

Mitt Romney: “That’s a very strange accusation. Of course, teachers and firemen and policemen are hired at the local level and also by states. The federal government doesn’t pay for teachers, firefighters or policemen. So obviously that’s completely absurd.”

-- Exchange between GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Fox News personality Brian Kilmeade, June 12, 2012

Fox News invited Mitt Romney on the air Tuesday to discuss the recent Gaffe-fest that featured President Obama and the GOP challenger himself -- whether he wants to admit it or not -- setting themselves up for easy attacks. To review, Obama said during a Friday news conference that “the private sector is doing fine.” Romney quickly pounced on that comment, telling voters the president is out of touch.

“He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers,” Romney said during a stump speech in Iowa. “Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Obama’s supporters responded by suggesting the GOP challenger wants to start eliminating firefighters, teachers and police from the public workforce -- a reasonable assumption given his comments Friday. Romney described the accusation as “strange,” but we found it just as curious that he claimed the federal government doesn’t pay for such government employees.

Let’s take a look at who pays for what.

The Facts

We figured Romney may have misspoke, so we asked his campaign to explain exactly what he meant with his comment that the federal government doesn’t pay for teachers, firefighters and police. After some prodding, spokeswoman Andrea Saul provided this terse response: “As Gov. Romney said, ‘teachers and firemen and policemen are hired at the local level and also by states’ – that is a fact.”

Saul is right, but that doesn’t address Romney’s overall statement.

Regardless, we’ll move on and examine each type of worker the GOP candidate named, beginning with teachers.

The federal government has doled out loads of education money to the states ever since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Lawmakers have reauthorized that measure every five years like clockwork, sometimes tweaking it a bit, as President George W. Bush helped do with No Child Left Behind.

Title I of the federal statute allows the government to allocate funds toward improving education for disadvantaged students. The U.S. Department of Education told us the law allows a great deal of flexibility in terms of how schools can spend the money, so long as the purpose matches the intent of the measure.

We found a list of federal appropriations to the Department of Education dating back to 1980, and we used those figures to calculate how much the government has spend on Title I grants since then. The answer: more than $355 billion.

A great deal of this money ends up going toward training and new materials, but schools are free to use it for additional teachers and paraprofessionals as well -- the Education Department says that’s not uncommon. As such, local schools have definitely used federal funds to hire teachers.

As for firefighters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded about $1.9 billion in federal grants to local fire departments since 2005 through its Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency (SAFER) program. We didn’t need to call FEMA to confirm that this money helps pay for actual firefighters, because the purpose of the program is implied in its name.

(Readers can view annual SAFER funding and see exactly where it went on the FEMA web site.)

In terms of police, the U.S. Department of Justice has provided a total of about $14.8 billion in federal grants since 1994 through its Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which started in 1994 as a way “to advance public safety through community policing by addressing the full-time sworn officer needs of state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies nationwide,” according to a fact sheet from the Justice Department.

No doubt about it, that’s federal money dedicated to hiring local police officers.

We should mention that the Obama campaign has countered Romney’s attacks, in part by releasing an ad featuring Massachusetts public workers criticizing the former governor for budget cuts he made. We found it odd that the video cited a Boston Globe article from 2009, since Romney left office in 2007.

We dug up the article and discovered that it actually dealt with some mid-year budget slashing by Romney’s Democratic successor, Gov. Deval Patrick. The report notes that Patrick’s reductions were larger than any that Romney implemented, and that the two governors made nearly identical cuts. Here’s an excerpt:

“The last time the state endured local aid cuts in the middle of a fiscal year was in 2003, when Romney cut $114 million. He followed that up with more cuts in the next budget. Together, the reductions in local aid resulted in about 14,500 teachers, police officers, librarians, and others losing their jobs.
But while Romney was lambasted by local officials, Patrick so far has generally avoided major political fallout.
‘He’s making the same cuts Romney did, but it’s how he’s done it,” said Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria, who said this year’s local aid cuts will total $860,000 for his city. ‘He’s much more sympathetic about the decisions. Romney came in like it was a business decision.’”

Apparently it’s not so evil to make tough cuts -- even if those cuts are larger than your adversary’s -- so long as you appear to be sorry for it.

The Pinocchio Test

Romney was dead wrong on this one, at least if you take his second point literally. The federal government definitely allocates money to help pay for teachers, firefighters and police. In fact, it’s done so to the tune of at least $370 billion since 1981, according to the figures we found.

We struggled with deciding whether to award three or four Pinocchios for Romney’s remark, but we figure he may have just slipped up during a live interview — that’s not a pure whopper. We haven’t seen him double down on the false claim, so we figure it’s worth three Pinocchios for now. We’ll be watching closely for repeat offenses.

Three Pinocchios

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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