Video: Click here for video clips from the Senate debate.
LINCOLN — Deb Fischer and Bob Kerrey delivered a fast-paced debate on policy, the future of the nation and their divergent political philosophies Aug. 25 before a boisterous crowd at the Nebraska State Fair.
Though the candidates for U.S. Senate clearly staked out their positions on major issues, they traded talking points so rapidly, it was sometimes difficult to sort fact from spin.
For example, Fischer, the Republican nominee, said Kerrey voted with his Democratic Party colleagues 92 percent of the time during his 12-year U.S. Senate run that ended in 2001.
And in discussing the Keystone XL pipeline, Kerrey said Fischer wrote a law that gave a foreign company more authority than a domestic company to obtain land for the pipeline.
Were they right, wrong or somewhere in between about these and other major assertions?
The World-Herald selected key statements from the debate and did a little research in an effort to find the truth beneath the polished performances and raucous applause.
Both candidates said they support the pipeline now that state environmental officials are working to select a route that avoids the Sand Hills. But that didn't stop Kerrey from trying to use the controversial project to inflict damage.
He said Fischer sponsored a law that gave foreign companies “substantially more leverage” than domestic corporations to use eminent domain to take land from private landowners. Fischer challenged the statement during the debate.
Fischer, a rancher from Valentine, sponsored Legislative Bill 924 in 2006 to amend state law on eminent domain procedures. In response to a Supreme Court ruling, Fischer's bill prohibited the use of eminent domain for economic development, except when a project involves “a right of way, aqueduct, pipeline, transmission line or similar use.”
The language says nothing about foreign or domestic companies. Furthermore, the exemption for pipelines has been in state law since 1963.
Kerrey's voting record
Fischer talked about how, in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature, she has had to work with Democrats to pass major legislation. In contrast, she said, her opponent has “a record of voting with the Democrats 92 percent of the time.” Kerrey said “it isn't true.”
Various organizations use databases to rate members of Congress on so called party unity votes. The percentages vary, depending on how issues are defined and what votes are included.
Fischer's number came from the American Conservative Union, which says Kerrey voted conservatively 8 percent of the time over his Senate career.
It's easy to find different percentages, although none as low as the union's. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action said Kerrey voted with his party 85 percent of the time in 2000. In 1993, Congressional Quarterly said Kerrey voted with President Bill Clinton 80 percent of the time, putting him well below the average for Democrats.
The Washington Post's database said Kerrey voted with his party from 84 percent to 90 percent of the time between 1991 and 2000.
During a question about illegal immigration, Kerrey said he supports providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people who serve in the U.S. military. Fischer replied she was unaware the military enlisted illegal immigrants.
The service branches do not knowingly enlist illegal immigrants, said Eileen Lainez, spokeswoman for the Department of Defense. Legal resident immigrants can and do enlist, at a rate of about 5,000 per year.
The department requires applicants to produce two forms of government-issued identification, including all applicable immigration documentation. Nonetheless, some illegal immigrants have slipped past the records checks and served, in some cases, valiantly. The military discharges anyone who it discovers used fraudulent documents, Lainez said.
Omaha's sewer separation project
Kerrey attacked Fischer for leading a filibuster in 2010 that resulted in a $300 million tax on Omaha water users. Kerrey said the bill would have saved ratepayers sales taxes on a major sewer separation project designed to “keep fecal material out of our drinking water.” And finally, he said, her efforts have put 4,000 Omaha jobs at risk because several major employers are thinking of leaving the city over the fees they now face.
Fischer said she didn't “lead any filibuster” against the bill.
For starters, the project is designed to build a system to separate storm water from the city's sanitary sewer and keep untreated sewage from flowing into the Missouri River during heavy rains.
As for the filibuster, former State Sen. Tom White of Omaha tried to pass a bill that would have exempted Omahans from paying sales taxes on sewer fee increases for the project. The exemption would have amounted to $325 million over 20 years. White, a Democrat, has said Fischer “led” the successful effort to kill his bill.
It's worth pointing out that the tax exemption had more than a few opponents, including Mayor Jim Suttle, a Democrat who argued that without the sales tax revenue — the city's portion of the revenue was estimated at $46 million over two decades — a property tax hike could be needed.
A check of legislative records showed Fischer was a leader of the opposition, speaking against it several times during the filibuster.
So what about the contention that the filibuster has threatened thousands of jobs?
A coalition of Omaha's largest industrial water users, companies that employ a combined 4,000 people, say the cost of the project may force them to relocate. But on the group's website, SaveOmahaJobs.org, and in public statements, members have said their opposition involves the city's plan to require them to pay 5 percent of the $1.7 billion sewer overhaul.
A spokesman for the group told The World-Herald that had the sales tax exemption passed, the coalition might never have formed. The spokesman: Barry Rubin, former director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Paying for roads
Kerrey lambasted what is considered Fischer's top legislative achievement: Her 2011 bill earmarking about $70 million in annual state sales tax money to fund highway work in Nebraska. Kerrey, a former governor, said he would have vetoed the bill because “the result will be property tax increases and higher tuition.”
Fischer said Kerrey had his facts wrong.
It's an oversimplification to say Fischer's roads earmark will automatically raise taxes and tuition. Several factors would have to fall into place before such a scenario played out.
It really depends on whether Nebraska's economy grows or falters. Current fiscal projections, however, show the state will face a shortfall in the two-year budget cycle starting in 2013. The projections say the new roads funding law contributes to the gap.
If the projections hold, state lawmakers will have to decide whether to keep the earmark, repeal it or make cuts elsewhere. And given the recent track record of Nebraska's legislative and executive branches, increasing taxes seems unlikely.
Nonetheless, several of Fischer's colleagues in the Legislature expressed concerns about the bill before it passed. Gov. Dave Heineman called it “risky fiscal policy” before he eventually signed it. Even Fischer said future lawmakers may opt to reduce roads funding if necessary.
The candidates punched and counterpunched over how to best reform Medicare and Social Security. At least twice, Fischer accused President Barack Obama and other Democrats of “stealing $700 billion from Medicare” to pay for the health care reform law of 2010.
Kerrey said the action didn't represent a cut to the program but an effort to slow its increasing costs.
National GOP leaders and candidates have latched onto a $716 billion figure in recent weeks. During last week's Republican National Convention, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin made an accusation similar to Fischer's — saying Obama “funneled” the money out of Medicare. PolitiFact.com, a fact-checking site run by the Tampa Bay Times, called Ryan's statement “mostly false.”
It's true the president's plan reduced payments to Medicare providers and insurers, cuts that add up to $716 billion over 10 years. The savings are supposed to help insure 30 million people currently without insurance. Those providers affected by the reductions hope to make up the difference with a new population of paying customers, according to Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Cap and trade
Both candidates said they do not support cap and trade, a method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by creating a market for carbon credits. Fischer said her opposition stems from the fact that such a program would levy a $1,700 tax on Nebraska families. Kerrey called the figure “grossly inflated.”
Facts are tough to come by when it comes to cap and trade, which exists pretty much in the realm of studies and analyses.
Fischer's $1,700 estimate doesn't agree with either the U.S. Treasury or the Congressional Budget Office. The budget office estimated a cap-and-trade system in the United States would cost households an average of $455 per year between 2012 and 2050.
But the CBO analysis has its share of skeptics, as well. For example, the Wall Street Journal said a closer look of the estimate “finds that it contains so many caveats as to render it useless.”
Below, watch a replay of the debate in its entirety or view shorter segments on the major campaign issues.