“What’s Terry McAuliffe offering Virginia families? False, misleading attacks. Massive, wasteful spending. And $1,700 in higher taxes every year. Terry McAuliffe: Deeply Unserious”
— Voiceover of new Ken Cuccinelli television ad
This 15-second television ad is a counterpunch to claims made by the Democratic candidate for governor that Cuccinelli, the GOP aspirant, would slash spending for local schools, or force hikes in property taxes, with his plan to cut taxes.
As the ad notes, The Fact Checker (and FactCheck.org and PolitiFact) criticized McAuliffe’s math as misleading. McAuliffe had justified his numbers because Cuccinelli has not spelled out how he would make up lost revenue — though he says he will — and so he blithely assumed none of the revenue was recovered. Ergo, massive cuts!
But in trying to turn the tables on McAuliffe, Cuccinelli engages in the same sort of fantastical accounting. Let’s take a look.
As with Cuccinelli’s tax plan, McAuliffe’s spending plans emphasize the possibilities — but rarely explain how he would pay for them. He wants to tap what he says is a potential gusher of cash by accepting an expansion of Medicaid contained in the Affordable Care Act, even though a state panel examining whether to accept the expansion is not expected to complete its work for some time.
In a detailed article, the Richmond Times-Dispatch demonstrated how both candidates are using fuzzy figures to discuss the Medicaid proposal — Cuccinelli to discredit it, McAuliffe to tout it. In McAuliffe’s case, he claims there would be more than $500 million in net annual savings because of speculative tax revenue from new jobs and economic activity that supposedly would be created from the Medicaid expansion. The figure would be much less, about $50 million a year, under other analyses.
But even if this money materialized, the Cuccinelli campaign argues, it doesn’t come close to paying for McAuliffe’s various proposals. That’s because, given that McAuliffe tends to be vague about his proposals or their costs, the Cuccinelli campaign gives itself license to speculate about the most expensive and expansive possibilities.
Case in point: McAuliffe has claimed he wants to reduce student debts, but with few details, so the Cuccinelli campaign assumed he wanted to pick up the tab for all debt of all students at state universities and colleges. Similarly, because McAuliffe has spoken favorably of raising the teacher salaries to the national average, the Cuccinelli campaign assumed he would immediately reach that goal.
Thus the numbers quickly add up: Nearly $1.3 billion a year more for PK-12 education, nearly $1.1 billion for college affordability and community colleges, $700 million for higher teacher pay, and so forth. Before you know it, McAuliffe, by Cuccinelli’s account, has added $14 billion in spending over four years.
Finally, Cuccinelli assumes that McAuliffe would pay for his plans with a tax increase — and that’s how we end up with $1,700 in new taxes on the “typical family” every year.
Not surprisingly, the McAuliffe campaign disputes these assumptions. “Cuccinelli is just fabricating numbers here,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “His claims have no basis in fact.”
But Anna Nix, a spokeswoman for Cuccinelli, defended the calculations as reasonable given the paucity of data and explanation about McAuliffe’s proposals. For instance, McAuliffe’s campaign platform declares: “Controlling costs and fees to keep our kids out of debt: Every student in Virginia deserves the opportunity to get a quality education and start their working lives without the burden of heavy debt.”
“McAuliffe says he’s going to keep students out of debt,” Nix said. “The only ways to do that are (A) lower the cost of tuition and provide a less quality of education, (B) refuse to let anyone enter college who cannot pay for it without incurring debt, (C) lower the costs of tuition and offset it with state support or (D) pay off student’s debt when they graduate.”
Options A and B are not politically viable, and C would be even more expensive than D in the long run, so she said the Cuccinelli campaign chose the middle ground option: D. “Bottom line, while it may be far-fetched to assume McAuliffe would pay off student debt, it’s utterly ridiculous for him to say that he would control costs to keep them out of debt,” she said. “If he said ‘help them graduate with less debt,’ then he’d be fine, but he dug this hole with his overly broad statement.” She noted that this sentence appeared in a campaign document, not in an offhand statement, suggesting it was carefully considered by the McAuliffe campaign before the platform document was issued.
The Pinocchio Test
Both men play to clichés about each other’s party with their claims. Just as McAuliffe immediately yelled “spending cuts” if Cuccinelli is elected, Cuccinelli now screams “tax increases.”
Both ignore the fact that any grand plans for tax cuts or new spending must be approved by the Virginia legislature, which is likely to view both plans with a skeptical eye, even once the details are filled in.
When we wrote about McAuliffe’s claims, we wrote: “Given that Cuccinelli has not identified specific cuts, he has left himself open to some speculation about the impact of his plan. Thus we can’t quite label McAuliffe’s fuzzy math as worthy of Four Pinocchios.”
The same holds true here. Given that McAuliffe has not explained how he would pay for his initiatives, or even what they might be, we can’t quite award these made-up numbers with Four Pinocchios. But it’s close.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker