FACT-CHECK: Peering behind newest punches in the Senate race


FARGO – With the general election campaign in full swing, new ads in the U.S. Senate race are inundating North Dakotans this month through the TV and internet.

National Republicans and Democrats have targeted North Dakota’s Senate race, because the outcome could determine which party holds power in the Senate next year.

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has released two campaign ads in the past eight days: one, an attack on her opponent and the other, a rebuttal to national Republicans’ own assault on her.

The campaign arm of the conservative super PAC, American Crossroads, is hammering Heitkamp again for her support of the 2010 health care reform law.

Meanwhile, national Democrats are out with another attack of their own against the Republican candidate, Rep. Rick Berg.

(NOTE: Several of the claims made in these ads have already been addressed in previous installments of the “Forum Fact-check.”)

Here’s a breakdown of each ad and the facts behind their claims:

Heitkamp: “Minimum Wage

While North Dakotans were deciding the contested GOP primary in the U.S. Senate race June 12, Heitkamp unveiled an online ad against Berg. (Berg won the primary by a 2-to-1 margin over challenger Duane Sand.)

Heitkamp’s ad dramatizes a video shot by North Dakota Democrats in May at a GOP campaign event, in which Berg appears unable to answer a question about North Dakota’s minimum wage.


Unidentified girl to Berg: “What is the minimum wage right now at North Dakota?”

Berg: “Hmmm.”

Ad: “Need a lifeline?”

Berg to someone in another room: “Do you know what the minimum wage is in North Dakota now?”

Unidentified person in the other room: “Same as federal.”

Berg: “Do you know what that is?”

Ad: “Answer: $7.25”

Heitkamp spokesman Brandon Lorenz said the Democratic-NPL Party is responsible for the home video-style footage captured at the GOP event.

The Democrats quickly released the video in an attempt to show how disconnected Berg might be from his constituents.

Berg’s campaign spokesman Chris Van Guilder accused Heitkamp of using “an undercover political operative (and) ‘gotcha’ games” in crafting the attack ad.

“What you also won’t see in this clipped video is that Rick knew the questioned wage within cents of its actual amount,” Van Guilder said as evidenced by the full video posted online by North Dakota Democrats.

“He explained that for some professions the wage would be different, and then went to double check in order to give the ‘student’ a thoroughly accurate answer,” Van Guilder added.

Lorenz said “the footage speaks for itself.”


Undated Valley News Live broadcast: “Berg voted against raising the minimum wage.”

According to North Dakota legislative records, Berg joined a nearly unanimous bloc of House members who, in 2007, approved raising the minimum wage to the current legal rate.

Berg served as a Fargo legislator for 25 years before he was elected to Congress in 2010.

In three other known instances – in 1999, 2005 and 2007 – Berg did vote against other proposals to raise the minimum wage.

In each of those cases, he voted with as much as a 2-to-1 majority in shooting down the proposals, the legislative record shows.

In 1999, House bill 1420 would have required employers to pay at least $6.50 an hour. The bill failed 36-62, with Berg voting against it. The state’s minimum wage at the time was $5.15, same as the federal rate.

The same proposal went before the House again in 2005. Berg also voted against that, too, and House bill 1382 failed 26-63.

In 2007, when Congress sought to boost the federal minimum wage to $7.25, North Dakota lawmakers weighed the same proposal but were divided on how quickly to make the transition to a higher rate.

Legislation sponsored by state House Democrats would’ve made the higher minimum wage effective in August 2007. House bill 1337 failed along party lines, 33-58.

Instead, lawmakers approved House bill 1454, which would raise the hourly rate to $7.25 over two years.

The measure passed the House 87-3, including support from Berg. That legislation ultimately went on to become law.


Ed Schultz in undated MSNBC broadcast: “Berg repeatedly voted to raise the salary of state lawmakers.”

On several occasions between 1997 and 2009, North Dakota legislators approved increases to their sources of compensation.

Legislative records show Berg was split in his support for the various proposals but generally voted with the majority of lawmakers in approving them.

North Dakota lawmakers are paid for each day during the legislative session, plus a monthly salary, and each day they serve for interim work. They also receive a monthly stipend to pay for lodging in Bismarck.

Prior to 1997, state legislators went 16 years without giving themselves a pay raise, The Forum reported then. Legislators’ daily pay had been $90.

That year, Berg voted against increasing daily and monthly salaries but in favor of increases to legislators’ housing stipends, legislative records show.

Senate bill 2051 raised legislators’ daily pay during sessions to $111 and increased their monthly salaries from $180 to $250. It passed the House by a 78-15 vote. Berg was among the small minority who opposed the bill.

Lawmakers also increased their monthly housing allowance from $600 to $650. Senate bill 2053 passed the House by a 71-24 vote, including support from Berg.

In 1999, Berg voted with a 69-28 majority to increase legislators’ compensation for attending meetings outside the regular session.

Senate bill 2055 raised legislators’ compensation from $62.50 per day to $75 per day for interim duties.

In 2001, Berg was again split on his support for pay increases for the Legislature.

Senate bill 2175 raised legislators’ daily pay by 13 percent to $125 a day during the regular session. The measure passed the House by a 60-34 vote, with Berg among the opposition.

Separately, though, lawmakers again voted to increase their daily stipend for interim committee meetings from $75 to $100, a measure Berg supported. The state House passed Senate bill 2176 by an 84-10 vote.

In 2005, however, Berg supported increases to legislators’ daily pay in a controversial, but failed, proposal that went before the Legislature.

Then the House majority leader, Berg was at the center of a controversy in which members unknowingly voted to raise their own pay.

The House Appropriations Committee had approved an amendment to Senate bill 2001 that called for lawmakers’ daily pay to increase from $125 to $135. The amended measure passed the committee unanimously, but word about the provision was apparently not relayed to the House floor.

House members approved the amended version of SB 2001 along with a slew of other bills, as part of their consent calendar, when numerous bills are acted on with one motion and no discussion.

According to a report by The Forum, when lawmakers confronted Berg with their frustrations, Berg accepted responsibility and said legislators could bring the measure back for reconsideration.

“It’s just been hectic,” Berg was quoted as saying at the time. “It didn’t occur to me this would be a concern.”

The House version of the bill – including the increased pay for state lawmakers – passed the chamber two days later by a 70-20 vote. Berg supported it.

However, a conference committee of House and Senate members rejected the House amendments, and the final bill passed both chambers without any pay increase for lawmakers. The final House vote on the compromise bill was 59-30, with Berg supporting it.

Also in 2005, state lawmakers voted to increase their monthly housing allowance from $650 to $900 to accommodate demands from Bismarck-area hotels, The Forum reported. Senate bill 2059 passed the House by a 75-18 vote, with Berg’s support.

In 2007 and again in 2009, North Dakota lawmakers also approved increases to their daily pay and monthly salary.

Berg supported those changes, which affected lawmakers who were in office at the time and, to a greater extent, those who would be in office the following session.

In 2007, legislators gave themselves a pay raise that took full effect in summer 2008.

The compromise version of House bill 1106 that passed the Legislature – by a 49-44 vote in the House – called for raising the weekly pay from $875 to $945. That amounted to a salary of $135 a day for the 2009-10 session, which was Berg’s last in office.

The original version of the bill approved by the House – by 63-29, with support from Berg – would have boosted lawmakers’ daily pay to $140, or what amounted to a 12-percent raise.

Most recently, in 2009, lawmakers approved Senate bill 2064, which increased daily and monthly compensation beginning in July of that year. The full increase took effect in July 2010, at which time legislators began earning $148 per day and a salary of $415 per month during the next regular session.

The compromise bill passed the House by a final vote of 54-36 with Berg’s support.

Meanwhile, for Heitkamp’s part: As attorney general, she drew fire in 1994 for authorizing pay increases for her office, which amounted to a 32 percent salary hike for some of her assistant attorneys general when most other state employees received only a 3 percent raise.

Although state leaders at the time wanted to tighten their belts, Heitkamp told The Forum in 1994 that the pay increases were necessary to make the attorney general’s office more competitive against lucrative private practice opportunities.

Heitkamp’s decision increased her office’s payroll by almost $165,000 that year. Her own salary – which was determined by the Legislature – was not affected.

Crossroads: “Change

Crossroads GPS says it bought $132,000 for its latest ad buy, which will run for at least another week in North Dakota.

The TV ad is the second attack from the conservative group, which criticizes Heitkamp’s support for health care reform.


Narrator: “Heidi Heitkamp supports Obamacare and predicted…”

Heitkamp, in 2010 video: “This bill will change the face of health care.”

The ad pulls video from an April 2010 rally, in which Heitkamp was the keynote speaker heralding passage of the health care reform law.

Heitkamp called the bill “a legacy vote” and urged supporters of the law to “be vigilant” against critics who would seek to repeal it.

Two years later, though, Heitkamp said this spring – for the first time publicly – that she’s “often said that it’s not a perfect law.”

In her March 2012 comments to The Forum, Heitkamp said there are “some good things” but also “some serious problems with the law.”

 Narrator: “She’s right. Obamacare cuts Medicare spending by $500 billion…”

A March 2011 report from the CBO said health care reform would reduce federal spending to the entitlement program by $492 billion by 2019.

Those cuts come in part due to changes in the Medicare’s fee-for-service policies, the report said.

North Dakota Democrats – including Heitkamp’s campaign – say the attack is misleading since Berg himself supported similar cuts to Medicare.

In 2011, Berg voted in favor of the budget proposal offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Ryan’s plan called for an overhaul of the Medicare program that included $450 billion in cuts, according to The Associated Press.

The Ryan budget plan was never enacted.


Narrator: “… gives unelected bureaucrats the power to restrict seniors’ care …”

The 2010 health care law created an Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, as a means to control costs in the Medicare program.

The 15-member board is set to take effect in 2014 and make annual recommendations to Congress about how to improve quality of care for Medicare recipients.

The board is “prohibited from recommending changes that would ration care, increase costs for beneficiaries, reduce benefits, or change eligibility,” according to healthcare.gov.

Berg has lobbied for repeal of the IPAB, which the House approved eliminating this spring.

The Senate has not yet voted on whether to repeal the IPAB.


Narrator: “… and now, costs and premiums are likely to go up.”

While health care reform was working its way through Congress in 2009 and 2010, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jonathan Gruber – a chief architect of the 2010 law – was among the proponents who claimed the legislation would “for sure” reduce the cost of health insurance.

But Gruber said this year Obamacare could increase premiums by as much as 30 percent, according to a March report in Forbes magazine.

Gruber said he drew that conclusion from analyzing the health care markets in Wisconsin in August 2011, in Minnesota in November 2011 and in Colorado in January 2012.


Heitkamp: “12 years

Heitkamp released her latest ad on Monday in direct response to the Crossroads ad and Republicans’ repeated attacks over health care reform.

The ad makes Heitkamp among the first Democrats nationwide to address the controversial law in a Senate campaign ad.


Heitkamp: “I’m Heidi Heitkamp, and 12 years ago, I beat breast cancer.

Heitkamp’s battle with breast cancer was chronicled heavily in the latter months of the 2000 gubernatorial election, in which Heitkamp unsuccessfully faced Republican John Hoeven.

In September 2000, Heitkamp announced she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. After a mastectomy and several rounds of successful chemotherapy and radiation treatments, tests found Heitkamp was cancer-free by July 2001.

Heitkamp: “…When you live through that, political attack ads seem silly.”

Heitkamp told The Forum in December 2011: “I don’t run against anyone. I run for the job.”

On the campaign trail, Heitkamp also often pledges to “put politics aside.”

However, since earlier this year, Heitkamp’s campaign rhetoric has repeatedly included direct and indirect assaults on her opponent, Rick Berg.

Berg’s campaign has also attacked Heitkamp, specifically for her support of health care reform and her ties to national Democrats.

Unlike Heitkamp, though, Berg’s attacks have not yet appeared in his campaign’s own ads.

The campaigns’ YouTube pages show Heitkamp has released one attack ad so far – hitting Berg on the minimum wage – while Berg’s ads so far have focused on his background and political record and have not mentioned Heitkamp.


Heitkamp: “I would never vote to take away a senior’s health care or limit anyone’s care. There’s good and bad in the health care law and it needs to be fixed…”

Studies from the Congressional Budget Office and other agencies have shown the 2010 law Heitkamp once said she fully supported will reduce Medicare spending by $492 billion by 2019 and could potentially increase individuals’ cost of health care.

In March 2012, Heitkamp first publicly expressed her mixed support for the law and her concerns about the individual mandate and burdensome regulations on businesses.


Heitkamp: “… but Rick Berg voted to go back – to letting insurance companies deny coverage to kids or for pre-existing conditions. I approve this message because I don’t ever want to go back to those days.”

After Berg took office in the U.S. House in 2011, one of his first votes was in favor of repealing the 2010 health care law in its totality. While the repeal effort passed the House, it failed in the Senate.

House Republicans – including Berg – have since sought to repeal the law piecemeal.

A successful example of that came in the repeal of burdensome tax requirements the health care law placed on businesses.

DSCC: “Spelled

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released its latest ad on Tuesday, presenting another assault on Berg’s voting record in both the North Dakota Legislature and the U.S. House.

The DSCC has purchased $86,000 of air time to run the TV ad through July 2, Roll Call reported Tuesday.

The ad reiterates several arguments the DSCC made in its first ad, released in late April and assessed in a Forum Fact-check then.

Almost all of the claims deal with Berg’s support for the 2012 and 2013 budget proposals by Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.

Although they passed the House – with Berg’s support – neither of Ryan’s proposals have garnered enough support to become law.


Narrator: “One congressman has spelled out his Washington priorities quite clearly. He voted to give billions in tax breaks to millionaires…”

The 2012 and 2013 budgets proposed by House Republicans and supported by Berg included major tax reforms that would benefit wealthier Americans.

Specifically, the proposal from Paul Ryan this year “would cut taxes for the wealthy” by capping individual and corporate tax rates at 25 percent, which is down from today’s 35 percent brackets, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Creating a system based around those reformed tax brackets would potentially mean eliminating smaller tax credits and deductions, which would mostly affect low- to middle-income families, The Financial Times reported.

The House Ways & Means Committee, of which Berg is a member, would have been tasked with drafting the specific tax reform called for under Ryan’s 2013 budget plan.

The Senate voted, along party lines, against the Ryan plan in May.

Narrator: “… while essentially ending Medicare for the rest of us.”

In casting a vote in favor of the 2012 Ryan budget last year, Berg also endorsed a plan to revamp the Medicare system.

The overhaul, proposed by Ryan, sought to change Medicare from a fee-for-service program into one that subsidizes individuals’ private insurance..

The full quote from the The Wall Street Journal, which national Democrats cite in their ad, reads: Ryan’s plan “would essentially end Medicare … as a program that directly pays (health care) bills.”

National Democrats’ repeated claims that the overhaul would kill Medicare altogether have been debunked by PolitiFact and other national news outlets.

Narrator: “He voted repeatedly to raise his own pay…”

As detailed above, Berg’s record in the North Dakota Legislature shows he has cast votes in several sessions between 1997 and 2009 to increase legislators’ compensation.

Narrator: “… then gave tax breaks to companies that ship American jobs overseas.”

This claim again deals with Berg’s support for the 2013 Ryan budget proposal.

A March 2012 article from the Wall Street Journal said, “the plan would nearly eliminate U.S. taxes on American corporations’ earnings from overseas operations.”