In the no-holds-barred arena of political debates, it's important to watch for attempts to pad résumés, obfuscate the facts and stretch the truth.
The World-Herald found all three when it reviewed Monday night's debate between Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, a Democrat, and Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Lee Terry.
The two are vying to represent Nebraska's Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District.
Hill-Terry proposal — law of the land or DOA?
The set-up: Along with Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., Terry introduced H.R. 2927, which would have mandated an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency standards to 32 to 35 miles per gallon by 2022. Those standards hadn't been raised in decades, as some members wanted no increase and others took a get-tough approach.
Debate claims: Ewing said the “Hill-Terry” proposal died in committee, while Terry insisted it became law.
“The Hill-Terry bill was adopted into the '07 energy act,” Terry said. “It was referred to as the Hill-Terry bill because it was put in there.”
The facts: It's true that H.R. 2927 itself never moved out of committee, much less made it to the president's desk.
But focusing solely on that fact ignores how the legislative process often works, with individual proposals folded into much larger pieces of legislation after lengthy negotiations.
Terry's bill attracted 178 co-sponsors and became the blueprint for allies of the auto industry, including Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.
At the end of the day, the 2007 energy bill signed into law by President George W. Bush was tougher than Terry's proposal and required a mandate of 35 mpg by 2020.
It's worth noting that groups pushing for tougher standards criticized Terry as trying to protect the auto industry. Still, Terry can rightly claim some credit in pushing for standards that could garner broad support.
Dingell praised him and Hill for their work on the bill and Terry scored an invitation to the bill's signing ceremony.
Health care taxes
Set-up: The candidates mixed it up over new taxes in the federal health care law, known to many as Obamacare.
Debate claims: Terry said, “Under his plan, if you're earning $250,000, the effective tax rate would be almost 44 percent, because you've got to add in the 3.8 percent surcharge from Obamacare.”
Ewing: “It is not a 3.8 percent rate on every individual. It is for second homes and vacation homes that that portion would actually cover.”
Terry: “That bill came through our committee. I saw that. It's for all income that is earned over $250,000, and yes, it would be on home sales, which is why the Realtors are upset about it.”
Ewing: “Which would be on second homes.”
Terry: “Not what it says.”
The facts: The tax clearly applies to more than second homes, but it covers investment income only, not all income above $250,000.
The new health care law does include a 3.8 percent Medicare tax hike on income over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples filing jointly that applies to income such as dividends and capital gains.
Those categories previously triggered no Medicare tax liability.
By definition, the additional tax applies to profits from all home sales. However, there are hefty exemptions for those selling their primary residence — $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples.
So a couple would have to sell their primary home for a profit of more than half a million dollars before having to worry about that additional 3.8 percent tax, which would apply only to the profits above the exempted level.
Vacation properties and second homes aren't eligible for the exemptions and would be affected more.
Treasurer Ewing — big spender or fiscal Scrooge?
The set-up: The candidates sparred over Ewing's budget record running the Douglas County Treasurer's Office.
Debate claim No. 1: Ewing said, “We have reduced our staffing levels through attrition to save you over $1 million per year.”
The facts: Ewing's spending and hiring increased after he took office in 2007. Then the recession hit and the County Board mandated budget cuts after the 2008-09 budget year on. Both spending and staffing levels have decreased since then.
Ewing arrives at the $1 million figure by adding up the salaries and benefits of all of the positions left unfilled since his office's peak budget year of 2008-09. He has cut about 20 positions from that year's 115.
But what he leaves out is that the Treasurer's Office had 107 employees when he took office in 2007. So he's saved taxpayers money — at the County Board's insistence — but probably not the million dollars he cites. The only way he's done that is if you count down from the additional staff he added.
Debate claim No. 2: Terry said, “He has spent over $600,000 more than when he started. So there's a difference here, even a conflict between what the Omaha World-Herald has said and what John says on his spending. He has spent more than the previous year every year he's been in office but one, totaling up to $600,000.”
The facts: Terry's first claim about the $600,000 is correct. Ewing's office spent $5.5 million last year, up from $4.9 million when he took office. Terry's second claim is incorrect. Ewing's office actually spent less than it did the previous year every year after the peak of 2008-09.
Terry's larger point — that Ewing didn't decide to make the cuts, he just chose how to carry them out — is fair.
Ewing asked the Douglas County Board for more money than his office received the previous year in every budget request except one.
The board did not approve those requests.
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