RALEIGH — Now that fact checkers for The Washington Post, WRAL-TV, and FactCheck.org have all taken the Senate Majority PAC to task for its false attack ad against Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis, I’ve decided to intervene in the organization’s defense.
Oh, to be sure, the central claim in the attack ad — that the 2013 tax-reform bill raised taxes on 80 percent of North Carolinians — is false. It’s absurdly false. But does the Senate Majority PAC really deserve such condemnation for repeating the charge in its ad?
The organization didn’t make the statistic up. Moreover, it had good reason to believe that the original source of the claim, the North Carolina Justice Center, actually meant what the Senate Majority PAC assumed it meant.
The claim that the bill raised taxes on 80 percent of NC households has long had its critics — namely the nonpartisan staff of the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division and my colleagues and I at the John Locke Foundation and Carolina Journal. We pointed out that the underlying math was impossible, given the actual distribution of incomes, households, and tax burdens in North Carolina. Later, the John Locke Foundation commissioned a study showing that, when properly modeled, the 2013 tax reform resulted in average tax savings for households in every income level. We also carefully pointed out that the existence of a net tax cut for every income group did not mean that every household within the group got a tax cut. Some will surely pay more because of eliminated deductions or credits than they will save from lower marginal tax rates. But the net financial effect for most households will be positive, not negative.
Why don’t I blame the Senate Majority PAC for making its false claim? Because the 80 percent figure has been bouncing around North Carolina for nearly a year. It has been widely reported by the state’s major newspapers and broadcast stations, as well as by MSNBC and other national outlets. It has probably been posted on Facebook and re-tweeted on Twitter tens of thousands of times since the tax bill was enacted last summer.
The original source, the Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center, now states that the Senate Majority PAC misunderstood its study and misstated its findings. But why did the center wait until now to correct the record?
Why didn’t center analysts object publicly and strenuously when journalists from The Charlotte Observer, the Associated Press, the Greensboro News & Record, Bloomberg News, WTVD-TV, Slate, and other outlets repeatedly cited the center as claiming that the 2013 tax bill would raise taxes on 80 percent of North Carolinians? Why didn’t center analysts object publicly and strenuously when the Democratic Party, Democratic officeholders, liberal groups, and the Kay Hagan campaign did the same thing on a near-daily basis? Worst of all, why didn’t center analysts object publicly and strenuously when their own Justice Center colleagues at NC Policy Watch made the same error many times over the past year, in broadcast appearances, print and online columns, and numerous blog posts?
These were not delicately hedged statements about “average” effects within quintiles. These were direct claims that the 2013 tax bill raised taxes on 80 percent of taxpaying households — precisely the same claim for which the Senate Majority PAC is now being rhetorically spanked.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not alleging that there was a conscious, concerted effort on the part of Justice Center employees, the Hagan campaign, the Democratic Party, newspaper editorialists, news reporters, and liberal activists to deceive North Carolina voters about the real effects of the tax bill. (That was the outcome, however. According to an April survey by Public Policy Polling, 45 percent of North Carolina voters thought the absurd 80 percent claim was true. Where did they hear it? And why was PPP testing the message?)
What I’m saying, again, is that the Justice Center’s contractor used a curious methodology to produce flawed findings that were destined to be misconstrued — including, it seems, by the center’s own employees. The center then continued to market and stand behind the study for months despite clear evidence that it was being widely cited to concoct ridiculously false accusations against Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger, Gov. Pat McCrory, and others. Everyone commits errors or makes a bad call, particularly when working on deadlines or with complex material. I know I have. What matters most is what happens after such errors and bad calls become evident.
If I’d been a liberal politico watching all this from out of state, I’d assume that the 80 percent claim was correct, too. Why wouldn’t I, when the claim was being widely reported by the news media and routinely cited by Hagan’s own campaign, without any apparent effort by the purported source to correct the record?
The Senate Majority PAC got it wrong. But most of the fault lies elsewhere.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.