—Harry G. Frankfurt, "On Bullshit"
The game of politics has always carried a whiff of bullshit, but these days, the stink is getting harder to ignore.
Take the GOP's ongoing efforts to claim that the Democrats' health-care reform law cuts Medicare by $700 billion. (It was $500 billion until last month, when new estimates showed that the savings from the Medicare reforms could grow to $700 billion over the next decade.)
This has been debunked over and over by the people at PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org, but it's an effective attack line, so it found new life in the presidential campaign after Mitt Romney tapped Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate—even though the Ryan budget plan uses those same savings while repealing the Affordable Care Act, often derisively referred to as Obamacare.
Just last week, Romney told 60 Minutes that Obama "robbed" Medicare of $716 billion to pay for Obamacare. That got rated "mostly false" by PolitiFact.
But you're still going to hear the claim over and over again from now until Election Day. You're going to hear that Obama told small-business owners: "You didn't build that." You're going to hear that Romney fired people, who lost their health insurance and then died. You're going to hear that Obama wants to scrap the "welfare to work" reforms from the 1990s, when in reality, he agreed to give two Republican governors waivers so they could experiment with reforms to welfare in their states.
In short: You're going to be buried beneath an avalanche of bullshit.
The false narratives are drifting down to the local level. In this year's campaign, there's been a strong push from a disparate group of Republicans who want to take out the Democratic majority on the Pima County Board of Supervisors and fire County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
While Pima County's government is hardly perfect—there's waste, fraud and abuse there, just as there is with every other government in existence—gigantic exaggerations and falsehoods are being tossed around on the campaign trail in the Republican primaries. Here are four of the biggest falsehoods:
FALSEHOOD NO. 1: YOUR TRANSPORTATION DOLLARS ARE "UNACCOUNTED FOR"
This false narrative was started by Arizonans for a Brighter Future, a nonprofit "business league" that has waded into the county elections.
Arizonans for a Brighter Future takes its working model from groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity. Campaign-finance watchdogs have taken to calling the contributions behind these efforts "dark money," because, as 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(6) nonprofit groups, they do not have to reveal the identities of their contributors, unlike traditional independent-expenditure committees.
Developer Mike Farley, who is heading Arizonans for a Brighter Future, told the Tucson Weekly he wants to bring about change in county government. As we reported earlier this month ("The Bright Stuff," Aug. 2), Farley has been frustrated over his efforts to build a shopping center near Kolb and Valencia roads, and he says he's one of many business people hamstrung by county government.
The Weekly started digging around after Republican Ally Miller, who is in a four-way GOP primary for retiring Supervisor Ann Day's seat, showed us an Arizonans for a Brighter Future report stating that over the last 10 years, $345 million in HURF money (Highway User Revenue Fund dollars from the state) was unaccounted for. Miller said that with her accounting background, she had also looked into it and determined that the money appeared to be missing.
We checked it out and discovered that the money wasn't unaccounted for; it was actually used to pay for the expenses of the county's transportation department, which is the normal practice of jurisdictions around the state.
In an interview, Farley conceded that the transportation money wasn't really "unaccounted for"; rather, he thought that too much was being spent on the transportation staff, with not enough money going toward pothole repairs and general road maintenance.
When we reported that the money was not "unaccounted for," Miller became so incensed that she blackballed the Tucson Weekly, calling it a "liberal rag" at a District 1 debate.
Miller is the only candidate in the GOP primaries who was pushing the meme that money was unaccounted for. The theory has little support among other county candidates. In the District 1 race, Mike Hellon said that Miller was flat-wrong. Vic Williams and Stuart McDaniel have said they haven't looked into it closely enough to comment.
In the District 4 race, Ray Carroll has said that the money can be accounted for, although he has some disagreement with the board majority's priorities in spending it. His challenger, Sean Collins, has alluded to "unaccounted-for" funds in campaign appearances, but he has said he had not looked into the claims from Arizonans for a Brighter Future.
FALSEHOOD NO. 2: THE COUNTY'S DEBT IS OUT OF CONTROL
"Debt" is a loaded word in the 2012 elections. But it's important to understand the difference between debt that's used to run the day-to-day operations of government (as the federal government does with the national deficit), and debt that is used to pay for long-term investments in the community like parks, police and fire stations, courthouses, sewer plants and the like.
The first kind of debt means that you're borrowing money just to keep the lights on. The county does not have that kind of debt; in fact, while jurisdictions like the state and the city of Tucson have faced gigantic budget shortfalls and have therefore been forced to slash spending and raise taxes, the county has managed to trim back on expenses, keep property taxes stable and finish every fiscal year with a surplus in various reserve funds.
But the county does have the second type of debt, which comes from borrowing money through bond sales or other means to get infrastructure built.
Most of Arizona's counties are largely rural areas, so it's an apples-to-oranges comparison when you put Pima County in the same category as Arizona's other counties. The only real comparison is with Maricopa County—and while it's true that Pima County's bond debt is higher than that of Maricopa County, there's a reason for that: Most of Maricopa County is also part of a city jurisdiction, such as Phoenix, Mesa or Tempe. But Pima County has an enormous number of people living in unincorporated areas, so the county does more for its residents.
The numbers show that, in total, the entire bond debt in Maricopa County—through the county itself, as well as cities, community colleges, the school districts and the special districts—was about $18.5 billion as of June 30, 2011, according to a report by the Arizona Department of Revenue.
When you add up all of those same jurisdictions in Pima County, you end up with about $3.5 billion in debt. Break it down on a per-capita basis, and Pima County residents owe $3,560, while Maricopa County residents owe $4,859, according to an article by Patrick McNamara in Inside Tucson Business, which is hardly a left-leaning publication (even if it is owned by Wick Communications, which also owns the Tucson Weekly).
Emil Franzi, a longtime conservative and local campaign consultant, makes the same point: Pima County's debt load is being massively exaggerated by Republican candidates, many of whom don't understand county government.
"If the county's debt is out of control, then they have real problems in every city in Maricopa, where debt is a lot higher and, in some cases, five times that of Pima County," Franzi says. "If this is out of control, then Scottsdale should have gone under five years ago."
It helps to understand what the county's bond debt has paid for.
Roughly 45 percent of Pima County's $1.3 billion in outstanding debt comes from bonds that are repaid through secondary property taxes. This voter-approved debt, which stands at just less than $453 million, has allowed the county to buy open space, build neighborhood centers and libraries, start work on a new county courthouse (which is costing more than originally projected) and do other projects.
Another 37 percent—or about $371 million—comes from improvements in the wastewater system. To meet federal standards, the county has begun work on a new sewage plant that will eventually replace the Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Plant. To pay back the debt, the county has been raising sewer rates; the county staff estimates that the rates will begin to decline in 2015.
Finally, there are county road bonds that are paid back through HURF dollars. The outstanding debt comes out to just more than $131 million, or about 13 percent of the county's debt. Huckelberry says the county decided to ask voters to approve the bonds back in 1997, after a change in state law meant that more HURF funds would be coming to the counties.
The road bonds were marred by controversy about 10 years ago, and a report by the state's auditor general concluded that the county needed better financial systems to track the projects.
Huckelberry believes that the bonds allowed the county to get a jump on some projects, but he says he would not recommend a future bond election that would be paid back through HURF dollars.
"There will never be another HURF-revenue bond, because it was designed, basically, to play catch-up with 20 years of neglect because of inequitable distribution," Huckelberry says. "As those bonds get paid back, we're doing more pay-as-you-go."
FALSEHOOD NO. 3: YOUR COUNTY PROPERTY TAXES ARE SKYROCKETING
Property taxes are complicated, and we're not going to do a dissertation on them here. But for the purposes of discussion, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind.
The first is that the county is only one of several local jurisdictions that collect property taxes. Others include school districts, fire districts and the state of Arizona.
The second is that your property-tax bill is based on the value of your house, multiplied by your tax rate. So if elected officials want to keep property taxes stable, they lower the rate when values go up, and increase the rate when values go down. It's far from a perfect system, but it's what the state has set up.
So in recent years, as property values have deflated, county supervisors have raised the rates. But many people are still paying less in county property taxes—including most of the Republican candidates who are complaining about their high taxes.
All four Republicans in District 1 are today paying less in property taxes than they did last year.
State lawmaker Vic Williams' 1,950-square-foot home, valued at $170,000 in 2012, had a Pima County tax bill of $921. That's down from $1,020 the previous year.
Williams also saw minor decreases in the county property taxes he owed on various rental properties around Pima County.
Tea Party activist Ally Miller's county property tax has also dropped. She paid $2,304 to Pima County in 2011 on her 3,500-square-foot, custom-built home, which is valued at $455,000. That's down from $2,586 the previous year, which equals a tax cut of $282, or more than 10 percent.
Former Republican National Committeeman Mike Hellon is likewise paying less on his 2,100-square-foot condo, which is valued at $177,600. In 2011, Hellon paid $854 in county property taxes, which is $138 less than the $992 that he paid in 2010.
Consultant Stuart McDaniel is paying a much-lower property tax bill, but that's because he's living in a smaller house. His larger home ended up in a short sale after McDaniel lost his job at busted mortgage-banking firm First Magnus, and he was headed for a foreclosure.
In the District 4 GOP primary, Dairy Queen owner Sean Collins hasn't seen much of a decline in the tax bill on his 2,300-square-foot home in Vail's Whisper Ranch, which is valued at $256,000. Collins paid $1,270 in 2011 compared to $1,284 the previous year.
His Republican opponent, incumbent Supervisor Ray Carroll, is the only GOP candidate with a legitimate gripe: His property taxes have actually increased slightly, partially because his value was reset when he purchased his 1,900-square-foot home in Bosque Ranch Estates, which is valued at $307,000. Carroll paid $1,475 in property taxes in 2011, up from $1,453 last year.
It's true that, by comparison, Pima County has a higher property-tax rate than Maricopa County. But as Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry pointed out in a May 2011 memo, Maricopa County has a more-diversified tax base, because it has a countywide half-cent sales tax that helps fund its operations.
As Franzi puts it: "You have various methods of funding government. Pick the tax you want to pay."
FALSEHOOD NO. 4. CANDIDATE ALLY MILLER WROTE A LETTER THAT TRIGGERED AN FBI INVESTIGATION OF RIO NUEVO
OK, this one is minor compared the memes above, but really: We're supposed to believe that the FBI took no notice of months of investigative reporting in the Arizona Daily Star, but a letter from a Tea Party activist got the G-men to spring into action?
To the extent that the FBI is involved in any kind of Rio Nuevo investigation—which has been going on an awfully long time with no criminal complaints—it's because the agency was asked by the Arizona attorney general to lend some talent in forensic accounting.
The idea that Miller's letter somehow brought in the FBI is akin to believing that wet pavement causes rain.