FORUM FACT-CHECK: Ad targets Heitkamp’s support for tax increases

Crossroads tweaks ad, re-releases it after fixing ‘completely false’ claim

FARGO – After making a slight adjustment, a conservative super PAC has re-released its latest campaign ad against Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp.

The revised ad from Crossroads GPS again criticizes Heitkamp’s support of tax increases on “car insurance and energy,” as well as other decisions she made as North Dakota’s attorney general two decades ago.

A “Forum Fact-Check” revealed that the ad‘s claims are based in truth but lack historical and factual context.

Crossroads launched the original version of this attack ad on Wednesday, but the group pulled it a day later after Heitkamp declared one particular claim was “completely false.”

The new version of the ad, which went back on the air late Friday, still uses a variation of the original claim that Heitkamp objected to.

(The original ad is no longer available online.)

Crossroads GPS had bought $191,000 worth of air time to run the 30-second spot in North Dakota through today.

Crossroads GPS is the campaign arm of American Crossroads, a super PAC that can raise unlimited funds to oppose or support federal candidates.

Including this ad, Crossroads GPS has spent more than $717,000 so far on anti-Heitkamp advertising in North Dakota.

By comparison, Majority PAC – a Democratic super PAC that opposes Republican Senate candidate and Rep. Rick Berg – has spent at least $653,000 on ad buys in North Dakota this year.

Narrator: “What’s Heidi hiding on taxes? As attorney general, Heitkamp supported new taxes on car insurance and energy…”

Heidi Heitkamp

Heitkamp served as North Dakota’s attorney general from 1993 to 2001.

In 1993, North Dakota lawmakers considered a proposal for a tax on car and truck insurance that would’ve helped pay for improved training programs for law enforcement officers and emergency workers in the state.

According to an Associated Press report in March of that year:

The tax imposed would’ve been 65 cents on every $100 of car insurance purchased, providing the state with $1.6 million in revenue over two years.

That money would have gone into a trust fund to pay for law enforcement training, funding for which was inadequate at the time, police officers and sheriffs had said.

The proposal had support from law enforcement officials, city and county lobbyists and Heitkamp, who – as attorney general – served as the state’s top law enforcement official.

The state House – which then included Berg, who was a Fargo legislator –  killed the proposal by a 59-38 vote in March 1993.

A few years later, state lawmakers sought to tax coal imports from outside North Dakota, a proposal which Heitkamp also supported.

In 1997, the Legislature had approved a sales tax on out-of-state coal based on its energy value, as opposed to taxing coal by the ton as did North Dakota’s severance tax on lignite resources in the state.

A district judge threw out the import tax in early 1999, and lawmakers instead passed a severance tax on imported coal.

Supporters of the 1999 measure said “putting a (tax) on imported coal  would make it less economical to use in North Dakota, and thus help preserve the state’s lignite mining industry,” according to an Associated Press report that spring.

“Perhaps the greatest motivations for this … is to guarantee revenues for the state of North Dakota and for its cities and counties,” Heitkamp said in February 1999, in reference to the “massive” investments communities made to accommodate the lignite industry in the state.

The severance tax on imported coal passed both the House and Senate by unanimous votes: 96-0 and 47-0, respectively. Berg joined the unanimous bloc in supporting the tax.

Republican Gov. Ed Schafer signed the tax into law on March 26.

Narrator: “… even as she awarded her staff a 30 percent pay raise…”

During state budget talks in 1994, Heitkamp came under fire for approving pay hikes as high as 32 percent for her assistant attorneys general when state leaders wanted to limit expenditures.

She funded the increased payroll using her office budget, which the Legislature approved.

In a November 1994 Forum article, Heitkamp said the pay hikes were necessary to make the attorney general’s office more competitive against lucrative private practice.

The office had struggled to retain staff, which Heitkamp said affected the quality of the state’s legal representation.

“I have absolutely no regrets about this,” Heitkamp said then of her decision to increase the attorney general’s office payroll by almost $165,000 that year. “This wasn’t done as a knee-jerk reaction to make a bunch of people around me happy. It was the right thing to do.”

The pay increases for attorneys in her office ranged from 15 percent to 32 percent of an annual salary, far in excess of the 3 percent that North Dakota leaders agreed to give the average state employee.

Republicans at the time – including then-Gov. Schafer – said Heitkamp’s decision was out of line in the face of the state’s fiscal challenges, and it was also unfair, given the Legislature’s decision to limit salary increases.

Schafer and other Republican critics had described Heitkamp’s raises as “startling” and “inappropriate.”

Heitkamp’s campaign noted that an audit of the AG’s Office in 1995 found the office was “functioning effectively” and “revenues (were) accounted for properly” for the previous two years.

Narrator: “… and allowed staff to fly a tax-payer funded plane.”

In the original version of the Crossroads ad, this claim stated that Heitkamp “spent taxpayer dollars on private planes.”

The revised claim is a truer statement but, like other allegations in this ad, seems to sensationalize the facts.

In 1993, the U.S. Department of Defense downsized the military and made available more than 100 planes for government agencies nationwide.

According to a Bismarck Tribune article on July 27:

Under Heitkamp’s leadership, the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office acquired two four-seater, two-engine 1965 T-42 Beachcraft Barons, which were valued at $102,000.

“Little, if no,” money from state taxpayers was spent on the planes, since the federal aircraft were provided free of charge by the D.O.D. and federal grants paid for insurance, fuel and pilot training.

One of the planes was to be used strictly for drug enforcement activities, while the other was stripped down and used for spare parts. The D.O.D. also gave the state an additional $200,000 worth of spare parts to use.

The state Bureau of Criminal Investigation intended to use one of the planes to track down drug offenders from the skies, such as by spotting marijuana crops.

The Bismarck Tribune reported that the North Dakota National Guard agreed to “house and service the planes,” and “a drug agent on the attorney general’s staff who happens to be a pilot will fly the plane.”

At the time, the controversy surrounding Heitkamp’s acquisition of the planes came only from the fact that state lawmakers were upset Heitkamp didn’t outright inform them of her office’s additional hardware.

Heitkamp told the Bismarck Tribune, it “never even crossed our minds.”

“When we buy a car, we don’t do that; when we buy a radio, we don’t do that,” Heitkamp had said. “There’s a great deal of federal property that comes into the state of North Dakota for all types of purposes. We assume it’s our job to pursue those opportunities when they make sense within the mission the Legislature has given us.”

Narrator: “Now Heitkamp supports higher taxes on North Dakota small businesses, raising taxes on job creators just as our economy struggles to come back.”

This claim discreetly references an ongoing point of criticism Crossroads has had of Heitkamp: health care policy.

The claim refers to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 28, which determined the 2010 health care reform law, also known as “Obamacare,” is constitutional.

By a 5-4 vote, the high court found the individual mandate – which requires all Americans to have health insurance – is actually a tax, allowable under Congress’ constitutional powers.

A major criticism of the 2010 law has been that it’s too burdensome on small businesses.

According to a CNNMoney report on the effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling: Companies with 50 or more full-time employees must start providing minimum health insurance coverage for all workers by 2014 or face fines, which start at $40,000.

“It’s a stiff rule that many fear, but it doesn’t affect the majority of the nation’s nearly six million employers,” CNN reported. “Government statistics show 200,000 small businesses will face the new rule. The rest, however, have no obligation to cover employees.”

The Hill, a Washington, D.C., newspaper, noted in July that the tax for not buying health insurance is smaller than other tax increases in recent decades and also smaller than other tax increases included in the 2010 law.

For her part, Heitkamp has had evolving support for health care reform over the past two years.

After Congress passed the health care law in spring 2010, Heitkamp headlined rallies, at which she praised the law.

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.”

During her Senate campaign, Heitkamp has cited two flaws in the law that she opposes: the individual mandate (which the Supreme Court upheld) and the burdensome regulations on businesses.

Heitkamp has said she would not support repealing the law in its entirety, because of the various positive benefits it provides Americans, such as guaranteed coverage of pre-existing conditions.

Read previous “Forum Fact-checks” for facts and information about ads in North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race.