“Terry McAuliffe’s new proposals will cost the average Virginia family over $5,000. … Terry’s new tax would actually be the largest tax increase in Virginia history.”

— Voice-over of a Glenn Youngkin (R) campaign ad

“That’s right, Glenn Youngkin would bring Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’s education policies to Virginia … massive cuts to education.”

— Voice-over of a Terry McAuliffe (D) campaign ad

It’s less than a month before the Virginia gubernatorial election and the airwaves and social media are filled with slashing attacks on the other candidate’s proposals.

Caveat emptor! Both of these ads use the same trick. They suggest they are quoting independent reports but instead rely on partisan analyses that assume the worst. The reality is that any governor will need to obtain the consent of the two chambers of the Virginia legislature — and under state law, produce a balanced budget.

Let’s take a quick look.

Youngkin ad: Terry the tax-raiser

An ad posted by Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin falsely claims former governor Terry McAuliffe would hike taxes $5,400 per family. (The Washington Post)

This ad suggests a news organization, Yahoo News, headlined an article: “McAuliffe plans could cost each Virginia family $5,400.” Then the ad purports to show the horrified reactions of Virginians as they digest this information. “Fifty-four hundred dollars is absolutely insane,” says one woman holding a computer tablet displaying the article. “As a father of three, Terry McAuliffe’s proposal is going to be harsh on me,” says a man.

But it’s all a trick. The Yahoo News platform housed the article — which had the headline, “McAuliffe plans could cost each Virginia family $5,400: Report” — but it was actually produced by a writer for an online source called the Center Square.

That, in turn, is a “news hub” of the Franklin News Foundation, which claims it offers “straightforward reporting from the taxpayers’ perspective.” The organization’s founders have Republican roots, and the Pew Research Center described it as an “ideological outlet” that tries to fill a void in state government coverage as traditional news organizations have reduced staff.

Moreover, the news article was based on a report by a conservative think tank called the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. The author of the report is described as “involved in a paid capacity with Republican members of Virginia’s General Assembly.”

But the funny thing about the article is that it makes two claims — the purported cost to Virginia families and the biggest tax increase in Virginia history — that appear nowhere in the report. Yet the article gives no indication of whether these are calculations by the author or how they were obtained. Both the headline and the start of the article suggest that the $5,400 price tag came from the report.

“The $5,400 number, I assume, comes from the Youngkin campaign. I would reach out to them for their math on how they arrived at that number,” said Jesse Lynch, the report’s author.

Tyler Arnold, the Center Square reporter, did not respond to queries over two days about whether he received the numbers from the Youngkin campaign. But when The Fact Checker first asked the campaign about the ad, we received some quick math: McAuliffe’s policy proposals would cost $16.6 billion over four years, according to the report, so that would be about $5,400 per household, assuming 3,100,000 households. (That is actually $1,350 per year. Neither the article nor the ad make clear that they are referencing a four-year figure.)

We are not going to dig deep into Lynch’s analysis. McAuliffe has certainly offered many proposals, and he would have to figure out a way to pay for them if he wins another term as governor. But Lynch’s report does not mention that McAuliffe has ruled out raising taxes. Campaign policy director Nicky Zamostny told our colleague Gregory S. Schneider in July: “Terry will not raise taxes, and he will make sure Virginia’s tax code and incentives are generating the best outcomes for schools, small businesses, and our workforce.”

Lynch said he was unaware of McAuliffe’s no-new-taxes pledge but added: “It does seem (to me personally) that it cannot go both ways, either he has proposed a whole host of new policies that he has no intention of funding or he will need to have more revenue or he will cut other government programs to pay for his plans.”

McAuliffe ad: Glenn the education-slasher

An Oct. 8 ad posted by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe falsely claims Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin would cut public school funding. (Terry McAuliffe | YouTube)

The McAuliffe ad is almost a mirror image of the Youngkin ad. While McAuliffe has highlighted his spending plans, Youngkin has emphasized how he wants to cut taxes. (That’s another reason Youngkin hammers his rival for supposedly wanting to raise taxes.) So McAuliffe also seizes on dubious reports, this time from left-wing organizations, to claim how Youngkin’s tax-cut proposals would leave Virginia so revenue-poor that education cuts would be necessary.

Early in the race, Youngkin suggested he wanted to eliminate the state’s income tax. “I have the best senior economic adviser on the planet in Stephen Moore working with me on this,” Youngkin said on a radio show in April. “And we are absolutely focused on not just getting our state income tax down, but how can we, in fact, eliminate it.”

(Moore, a former campaign adviser to President Donald Trump, was instrumental in Kansas’s failed experiment in deeply cutting taxes — which created a fiscal crisis so severe that the GOP legislature ended up canceling the tax cuts. “Kansas didn’t work out so well, but we probably got 10 other examples of states that did really well when they lowered taxes,” Moore told The Washington Post.)

In any case, when Youngkin rolled out a detailed tax plan in late August, eliminating the state income tax was no longer on his agenda.

Instead, he offered a package of one-time tax cuts totaling $1.8 billion and recurring tax cuts amounting to about $1.4 billion per year, such as doubling the standard deduction. Most of the one-time cuts would be paid for out of a surplus of some $2.6 billion that the state projects for the coming budget year, campaign aides said, though much of it is already committed under state law for the “rainy day” fund and various budget commitments.

Even before releasing the plan, Youngkin had backed away from eliminating the state income tax. “We can’t get rid of our state income tax but we can sure try to bring it down,” he said in an Aug. 10 interview. “It’s an important part of funding our government and can’t go to zero like in Tennessee and Florida, but we can certainly bring it down.”

But Youngkin’s more refined tax proposal did not stop the McAuliffe campaign from relying on reports that purported to assess the impact of repealing the state income tax on state coffers. The ad’s claim that “massive cuts to education” would result relies on a report by a group called Virginia Excels that was headlined: “Eliminating the Individual Income Tax Means Failing Our Students.” The other reports were by the National Education Association and the Center for American Progress Action Fund (which in turn cites the Virginia Excels report).

All three reports were released in September, after Youngkin no longer called for ending the income tax — and all three examined the impact of eliminating the state income tax, a progressive tax that supplies about three-quarters of the state’s general-fund revenue.

The Virginia Republican Party has filed a complaint against Virginia Excels with the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that the organization violated its tax-exempt status by issuing the report and noting how quickly it was embraced by McAuliffe. Youngkin “has been clear since early August that he is not advocating for eliminating the tax altogether,” the IRS complaint said. “That has not stopped his opponent Terry McAuliffe, with the help of Virginia Excels, from trying to falsely claim he wants to eliminate Virginia’s income tax.”

Taikein Cooper, the executive director of Virginia Excels, is chair of the Prince Edward County Virginia Democratic Party and has contributed to the McAuliffe campaign. The Virginia Excels website lists only Cooper as “the team,” and he did not respond to queries about whether the group had any other employees.

Youngkin has issued fewer specific proposals than McAuliffe, but he has tried to inoculate himself against such education attacks by releasing an education improvement plan and promising to spend $100 million a year on raises for schoolteachers.

Renzo Olivari, a McAuliffe spokesman, defended the ad.

“Glenn Youngkin is running on a budget plan designed by Donald Trump’s top economic adviser that would slash funding for public education and safety, and which The Washington Post editorial board has said would drive Virginia’s economy into a ‘ditch,’” Olivari said. “Terry McAuliffe has been clear that as governor he will create good-paying jobs, make health care more affordable, and give every child a world-class education, and he will not raise taxes to do it.”

Matt Wolking, a Youngkin spokesman, attacked the McAuliffe ad by referencing the numbers in the Youngkin attack ad.

“Terry McAuliffe is lying to Virginians and he’s doing it with bogus studies from political groups that support him. Glenn Youngkin will fully fund law enforcement, raise teacher pay and invest in public schools with the largest education budget in the history of Virginia,” Wolking said. “While Glenn Youngkin’s plan will lower the cost of living for families and save them $1,500 in the first year, an analysis shows Terry McAuliffe’s radical proposals would cost each family $5,400 and require the largest tax increase in Virginia history.”

The Pinocchio Test

Both of these ads come straight out of the attack-ad playbook: cite partisan reports that assume the worst about your opponent’s proposals. Youngkin pegs McAuliffe as a huge tax-raiser even though the former governor says he won’t raise taxes. McAuliffe claims Youngkin will slash aid to education even though the Republican says he will raise wages for teachers and improve Virginia schools.

This is all poppycock and both campaigns earn Four Pinocchios. Readers should mute the sound when the ads start to air.

Four Pinocchios

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