U.S. Rep. Lee Terry pulled a controversial campaign ad Thursday that criticized his challenger, John Ewing, for his fiscal management of the Douglas County Treasurer's Office.
Terry's advertisement had come under fire for the way it used budget numbers.
Confirmation that the ad had been pulled came after The World-Herald newsroom told the campaign that its fact-checking analysis had concluded the ad was misleading.
The campaign, however, continued to defend the ad.
As recently as Tuesday, Terry campaign manager David Boomer said he planned to buy more television time for it.
That plan was dropped Thursday, but Boomer said he pulled the ad only to make room for a new Terry commercial. He said the campaign wanted to respond quickly to a Ewing ad that criticizes the Republican incumbent on Medicare.
The Terry camp still stands behind its charge that Ewing, a Democrat, sought increased spending and ran up deficits as county treasurer — a record it labeled “gross fiscal mismanagement.”
But a review of Terry's now-pulled ad shows that it misrepresented the county's budget process by comparing Ewing's spending to an incomplete budget figure.
It also twisted the definition of a budget increase.
Boomer said the ad was factual and contained accurate numbers.
The problem is how those numbers were used.
The World-Herald looked at two charges Terry's ad made, each accompanied by a graphic with specific numbers.
No. 1: “Ewing kept spending anyway — racking up big deficits.”
Terry's ad compared Ewing's actual spending with the initial budgets approved by the County Board. It pointed out that Ewing spent about $688,000 more over the past five full years than those initial budgets allowed.
But Ewing did not, as Terry claimed, run a deficit. Instead, he spent less each year than the final adjusted budget set by the County Board. Compared with his final budgets, Ewing spent a total of $155,797 less than allowed.
Both numbers — the $688,000 in extra spending and the $155,797 in savings — are literally accurate. But Terry's approach ignored a key element of the county's budgeting process.
The initial Treasurer's Office budgets passed by the County Board don't account for all of the money the county expects the agency to spend. In particular, those budgets typically do not include pay raises that the county board negotiates with various employee unions, including those representing Ewing's employees.
The County Board sets aside a pot of money each year — separate from department budgets — so it has enough money to cover those anticipated pay raises, which are determined after the initial budget is set. The board often does reallocate that money later in the year to individual departments once the raises are known.
It's flawed to compare Ewing's final spending total, which includes pay raises, with the original budget that doesn't include the raises. That's an apples-to-oranges comparison.
At the same time, it's almost meaningless to compare Ewing's spending to the final, adjusted budget. Under county rules, departments are not allowed to exceed their budgets, so Ewing is assured of ending each year in the black. The board's supplemental budget adjustments, which include more than just the pay raise issue, guarantee it.
No. 2: “Ewing tried to increase his office's budget six years in a row by over 1.2 million dollars.”
While Ewing asked for budget increases as county treasurer, it hasn't been every year or by as much as Terry claims.
Terry's ad redefined a budget “increase.”
Rather than the normal definition of an increase — a change from one year to the next — the Terry ad focused on the difference between what Ewing wanted to spend and what the County Board gave him in the same year.
As a result, Terry's ad inflated the amount of additional money Ewing sought and the number of years in which Ewing requested increases.
Terry could have made a point about Ewing's spending requests without creating the novel type of “increase.”
Ewing's actual budget requests were larger than his previous year's final budget in four of the past five years. His requested increases averaged $112,429 annually, or about 2 percent more than the previous budget.
That's less than the annual average “increase” of about $190,000 shown under Terry's definition, but it's still an increase.
Ewing has touted his management of the Treasurer's Office as evidence that he is fiscally responsible, and it's reasonable for Terry to try to poke holes in that record.
This week's Terry ad, however, overreached in making its case.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1114, firstname.lastname@example.org
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