“When times are tough, we budget for our families. But when our state’s budget was in crisis, Phil Bredesen supported higher taxes on us: higher gas taxes, sales taxes and more.”
— Attack ad by Americans for Prosperity on Phil Bredesen, Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Tennessee, Aug. 29
Americans for Prosperity, the anti-tax group funded by the Koch brothers, is shelling out $2 million for this TV and digital ad painting Bredesen as a tax-happy Democrat.
The narrator claims Bredesen, who was governor of Tennessee from 2003 to 2011, “supported higher taxes on us: higher gas taxes, sales taxes and more.”
This is a puzzler because, although he considered it, Bredesen did not actually increase the sales tax or gas tax while in office. Instead, the governor and Tennessee lawmakers enacted a new tax on cigarettes, raised employer taxes to shore up the state’s unemployment trust fund and closed several corporate tax loopholes, among other changes.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, these moves netted more than $900 million in new yearly revenue. But they’re not easily explained in a 30-second attack ad.
Let’s dig in.
Tennessee’s gas tax did not increase while Bredesen was governor from 2003 to 2011. It was set by law at 20 cents per gallon from 1989 to 2017, when Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed a 6-cent increase to be phased in over three years.
In 2003, Bredesen said raising the gas tax by “a couple of pennies” per gallon might be needed so that Tennessee could get matching funds from the federal government that otherwise might have been left on the table. He would return to this idea over the following years, according to news articles cited by Americans for Prosperity. But he never acted on it.
“I think infrastructure is important,” Bredesen said in 2006, according to the Times Free Press. “We fund it through the gas tax. And if there’s additional federal money which a small increase in the gas tax would make sense to bring down, then I’m for it. I think we should do it.”
Tennessee caps its sales tax on items priced higher than $3,200. In 2010, Bredesen proposed to lift the cap to raise $85 million in revenue. Vehicles, boats and homes would have been exempted under his proposal.
But his proposal didn’t go anywhere. In fact, the state sales tax for food items declined from 6 percent to 5.5 percent under Bredesen’s watch.
And Bredesen’s campaign pointed out that, in 2006, he proposed a sales tax holiday for the back-to-school season, which is now a yearly tradition. “Thanks to this annual tax-free weekend, Tennesseans have saved over $100 million,” a Bredesen spokeswoman said. (How do they get this $100 million estimate? According to the Leaf-Chronicle of Clarksville, Tenn., “the first Sales Tax Holiday was Aug. 4-6, 2006, saving Tennesseans about $15 million. Since then, Tennesseans have enjoyed a combined $8 [million] to $10 million in tax savings each holiday.”)
Bredesen did raise some taxes and fees during his eight-year tenure — other ones. A cigarette tax from 2007 was estimated to add $160 million to $180 million in annual revenue. Temporary higher taxes on employers raised an estimated $245 million a year for the state’s troubled unemployment trust fund. The Times Free Press calculated that these and other changes, such as closing corporate tax loopholes and raising fees, added more than $900 million a year in revenue for Tennessee’s state budget.
Why didn’t Americans for Prosperity talk about these changes in its attack ad? If nothing else, it might have saved them a fact-check or two.
“‘Support’ means you’re in favor of something whether you act on it or not,” said Gabrielle Braud, an AFP spokeswoman. “Bredesen talked publicly and repeatedly about wanting both taxes and actually took steps to eliminate the sales tax cap but was rebuffed by lawmakers. The goal of the ad is to highlight for Tennesseans how Phil Bredesen’s instincts turn to harmful tax increases even when he doesn’t get his way.”
The TV ad itself doesn’t make this nuanced argument. The way it’s worded, viewers easily could get the impression that Bredesen not only “supported” but proposed or signed higher taxes for gasoline and other purchases. After all, when an elected official supports something, especially a governor, that usually means some kind of official action.
"Governor Bredesen balanced eight budgets without imposing an income tax or increasing the sales tax on Tennessee families,” said Alyssa Hansen, a Bredesen spokeswoman. “He also worked diligently with the legislature to raise the tobacco tax to fund education and to close corporate tax loopholes that were siphoning resources away from public safety, health care, education, and other priorities.”
The Pinocchio Test
This isn’t the first attack ad that takes a fragment of accurate information and stretches it to misleading extremes.
Bredesen mused about raising the gas tax while he was governor. But it matters more that he didn’t.
Bredesen proposed lifting a cap on the sales tax for items above $3,200. But it matters more that he didn’t do this and ended up with a lower sales tax on food items and a new sales-tax holiday.
The head-scratcher here is why Americans for Prosperity chose to spotlight ideas that never took off instead of the taxes and fees Bredesen did raise. Our unsolicited advice for ad-makers is to stick with the facts, even if they’re not as exciting. Otherwise the risk is ending up like Americans for Prosperity, with Three Pinocchios.
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