I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fact Checking-Checking

Almost any time you see a "fact checking" article, you can expect the same basic format:

  1. A takedown of some incredibly mendacious nonsense from someone in power.
  2. A "But They Both Do It!" section with some really weak attempt to equate the powerful with his/her critics.

 Michael Symons follows the playbook:
Here’s some fact checking of the rhetoric, from Christie’s interview Sunday with WWZY radio and from recent statements by the NJEA:
 He starts with Christie's claim that no district lost more 5% of their budget:
In some districts — 51 out of 582, precisely — the aid cuts did amount to more than 5% of their overall budget.
How about Christie's claim that "If every teacher in New Jersey this year took a pay freeze, just for one year, and paid 1.5% of their salaries toward health benefits, that would make up $800 million":
...every school employee, from superintendents through lunch ladies, would have to take a pay freeze to save a bit over $565 million. Another $200 million would be saved if every worker paid 1.5% of their salary toward health care.
Christie then gets the number of teachers in the state wrong by 50K - not a huge error in terms of the debate, but if you're going to throw around statistics about something you've made the focus of your policy, try a little harder to get it right.

OK, so now the reporter's job is to equate the NJEA with the Gov. And this is what Symons comes up with:
NJEA President Barbara Keshishian says the governor has decided to “deliver generous tax cuts for the super wealthy.” Last year, she said, that “very modest tax on the very wealthiest New Jersey residents, those making more than $400,000 per year” generated nearly $1 billion in revenue for the state.
In my mind, to equate with Christie's mistruths, she either a) needed to get that $400K figure wrong, or b) get that $1 billion wrong. Did she?
Christie didn’t cut income taxes on households with incomes of $400,000 or more. They were raised last year for one year only by Gov. Jon Corzine and Democratic lawmakers, then expired while Corzine still held office. Corzine said he didn’t propose extending the tax increase in deference to Christie’s opposition. It’s unknowable whether Christie would have proposed cutting that tax if it had been extended — but Christie hasn’t pursued other promised tax increases and said often as a candidate that tax cuts would have to wait until later in his term because of the condition of the state budget.
Um, no. The tax was there - now it's not. Blaming Corzine for letting it expire lets Christie off the hook way too easily. And Keshishian says "deliver," not "cut" - I think that's more than fair.

In any case, this is all semantics. If the second part of the graph makes the case that Christie would have kept the tax had Corzine enacted it, all the more reason to wonder why he's not enacting it now. This is a CHOICE he's making.
It’s not yet known how much revenue the so-called millionaires’ tax generated, as much of that impact depends on final income-tax filings that won’t be made until April.
It's just plain silly to blame Keshishian for this; all budgets are forecasts. Besides, right afterward, Saymons writes:
Moreover, the increase in income tax rates was projected to generate around $900 million — $83 million on incomes of $400,000 to $500,000, on which the tax rate rose temporarily from 6.37% to 8%; $620 million on incomes of $500,000 to $1 million, on which the tax rate rose from 8.97% to 10.25%; and $200 million on income over $1 million, on which the tax rate rose from 8.97% to 10.75%.
So Keshishian is wrong to use those projections? Or is she not supposed to make a case here until the final concrete numbers come in? And this is equivalent to Christie misstating what we know as facts? Would you have this complaint if she had used the word "projected"?

Another $100 million, which brought the projected impact of the 2009 law to around $1 billion, derives from barring homeowners with incomes over $250,000 from deducting their property taxes from their income taxes and capping at $5,000 (cutting in half the maximum deduction) the deduction for taxpayers with incomes between $150,000 and $250,000. However, all the political support for the millionaires’ tax talks about affected taxpayers with incomes of $400,000 or more, not $150,000 or more.

But, Mike - you didn't say how much of that $100 million comes from folks with incomes over $400K. It's got to be part of it at least - maybe most of it. But you add whatever it is to the $900 million, and you've got "nearly $1 billion" - which is what you attribute to Keshishian in the first place.

Let's compare:

Christie: Said no district lost more than 5% when 51 did. Says if every teacher took a freeze and paid 1.5% on their health insurance, that would be $800 mil, when it would have to be everyone working in the schools - not just teachers - and it still comes up short. Got the number of teachers in the state wrong by 50K.

Keshishian: Said Christie "delivered" a tax cut for the wealthy on a tax Corzine let expire but Christie refuses to reinstate. Using official projections of the tax's revenues instead waiting for final numbers to come in. Calls nearly $1 billion "nearly $1 billion."

This is my major frustration with the press: they just won't make judgement calls, even when they're this obvious. Michael Symons is obviously a smart, well-informed guy, but he is in the thralls of "balance," which has become the enemy of "truth."

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