To political operatives, campaign mailers are often considered the most effective way to target voters, particularly in local elections.
To fact-checkers, they’re often home to glaring distortions.
Today’s example: A flier in the St. Petersburg mayor race that links incumbent Bill Foster, a $10 million fire fee and Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
A headline on the mailer reads, "Bill Foster's $10 million Rick Scott-inspired fire fee."
"Foster’s $10 million fire fee would have charged you for services you already pay for. Sound familiar?" the text continues. "Instead of taking leadership by cutting fluff out of the budget, Bill Foster took a page out of Rick Scott’s Tallahassee playbook and tried to charge us millions of dollars in ‘fees’ that taxed you for services the government should have already been providing -- $10 million of them!"
The flier comes from Fact Check Florida, an electioneering communication organization, or ECO, that supports liberal candidates and is run by Jacksonville resident Matthew Martz. As an ECO, Fact Check Florida (nice name, by the way) can pay for ads that attack candidates, but it cannot expressly advocate for a candidate’s defeat or election. It can tell you why it thinks Foster is a bad guy but can’t tell you to vote for Foster’s opponent, Rick Kriseman.
About the fire fee
Yes, Foster pitched a fire readiness assessment, or "fire fee" in 2012 as a way to plug the city’s budget gap after another year of disappearing property tax revenues.
But the idea was not "inspired" by Scott in any way.
"It was funny because it was from Fact Check Florida," Foster told us, "and there was nothing factual about it."
In Foster’s first two years in office, the city made up for lost property tax revenues (a result of declining home values) by reducing positions and program spending. Foster criticized a potential fire fee as a "backdoor tax increase" in those years. But in 2012, he suggested that instead of more cuts, the City Council approve a new fire readiness fee that would total $9 million a year, which was about the amount needed to close its gap for 2013.
The latest version of the proposal called for property owners to pay $50 a year per parcel and $.21 per $1,000 of its appraised structural value annually, according to Tampa Bay Times archives.
Some council members criticized the fire fee as disproportionately punishing low-income residents by asking them to pay the same amount as wealthier residents. The council rejected the idea and instead raised the city’s property tax rate for the first time in two decades.
Foster recently tried to distance himself from the fire fee that he was linked to so closely in news coverage. With Kriseman using it as an example of failed leadership, Foster told the Tampa Bay Times that he did not come up with the proposal, pointing to records that showed council members asked the idea to be considered at a workshop eight months before they ultimately rejected it. (This revelation came after the mailpiece was distributed, so we don’t hold it against the group for not including.)
The connection to Scott
Let’s go back to the ad. At its most generous reading, the ad implies Foster followed Scott’s lead of raising fees for existing services. But that does not align with Scott’s record in office, which has not seen major tax or fee increases beyond increases to tuition.
The state also has cut taxes and fees for Floridians since Scott took office. You can read about that here.
Fact Check Florida's Martz defended the mailer. While the fee was "obviously" not Scott’s idea, he said, it’s similar to Tallahassee Republicans who "keep coming up with tiny ways to take money out of voters’ pockets without them noticing."
"Under Rick Scott, it was with tuition rates," he said. "And before he got there, the Republicans did it with driver’s license renewals and things."
Martz’s last point refers to $2.2 billion in increased taxes and fees that Republican lawmakers passed in 2009 -- before Scott became governor.
The St. Petersburg mayor’s race is nonpartisan, but the injection of Scott highlights the political differences between the two candidates. Foster is a Republican who has Scott’s endorsement, while Kriseman is Democrat whose campaign is being partly financed by the Florida Democratic Party. Another third-party group led by Tallahassee lobbyist David Ramba is attacking Kriseman in a separate mailer for sharing partisan policies akin to the ones that brought about the government shutdown.
The evolution was inevitable after the city voted in 1993 to move to a strong mayor system, argues Darryl Paulson, University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor emeritus of government. In the case of this ad, tying Foster with an unpopular governor appeals to the emotions of voters, Paulson said.
"The Democrats are in essence trying to say that even though it’s not a partisan race, look who is supporting Foster, and we as Democrats hate the governor," Paulson said. "It’s really designed as a get out the vote effort to get Democratic voters to to vote in a nonpartisan election."
A mailpiece attempts to connect Foster’s rejected proposal for a fire readiness fee with Scott. This is junk mail.
We rate it Pants on Fire!