Fact-checking the Crist-Rubio debate

Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio square off on FOX News Sunday in a U.S. Senate primary debate.
Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio square off on FOX News Sunday in a U.S. Senate primary debate.

The tax-cutting bona fides of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist were center stage during Sunday's first U.S. Senate primary debate.

In front of a national audience on Fox News Sunday, Crist and Rubio tried to one-up each other on their voting records and accomplishments. If you weren't watching, it went something like this:

I cut taxes. You raised taxes.
Nuh-uh. You raised taxes. I cut taxes. You're a liar.
Well, you're a bigger liar, you tax raiser.

Crist told Fox's Chris Wallace that he signed the largest tax cut in the state's history, while Rubio proposed a massive tax increase. Rubio claimed that Crist broke a no-new-taxes pledge while Rubio said he kept the same pledge. Rubio said Crist is distorting Rubio's tax record. And Crist said Rubio is distorting Rubio's tax record, noting that he voted for tax increases as a member of the West Miami City Commission.

Who's right?

In most cases -- neither of them.

In their efforts to be known as the true tax-cutting crusader, both Crist and Rubio have distorted or cherry-picked their records.

On Sunday, Crist again claimed to have signed the largest tax cut in Florida history, a package of property tax reforms. PolitiFact Florida twice has rated the statement False, so rating it a third time didn't seem necessary.

Rubio, making his first Sunday national talk show appearance, claimed to have never voted for a tax increase. Again, it's a claim we've already rated False. Rubio was part of the state Legislature that increased property tax collections, and the property tax rate in 2008, for Florida's K-12 school system.

Crist then brought up Rubio's two years as a West Miami city commissioner.

"Just let me say that (Rubio) voted for tax increases when he was on the West Miami City Commission, and he said on his Web site that he has never voted for a new tax," Crist said during the 40-minute debate. "That's just not the truth, and he ought to be truthful to the people of Florida before he asks for their vote."

Rubio responded flatly: "Chris, that's also inaccurate."

But Rubio did vote for tax increases in 1998 and 1999 in West Miami. The tax rate did not increase, but people's bills increased because of rising property values. The city of West Miami published a "notice of proposed tax increase" for those years, and state law required city leaders to announce the tax rate as a tax increase.

Rubio spokesman Alberto Martinez said Rubio did not vote for tax increases in West Miami because the tax rate did not change. It’s an ironic argument, however, because Rubio argued as a member of the Legislature that local governments were raising taxes while being able to claim they were keeping the tax rate the same. In a letter to supporters in 2007 he wrote: “One of the reasons the system is broken is because with the massive escalation of valuations, local governments have been able to brag about cutting your millage, yet you are still paying more in property taxes.”

Then there's Crist, who launched what amounts to a nuclear attack in Republican politics. He tried to label Rubio a tax raiser.

Crist said Rubio's failed 2007 effort to swap out property taxes for homeowners with a higher sales tax rate would have led to a "massive tax increase."

"In all due respect to the speaker, you've just got to tell the truth to people," Crist said. "And that's really what this is all about."

The truth in this case is that while Rubio's plan would have raised taxes for some people -- primarily renters -- it would have drastically cut taxes for homeowners. (The savings only would apply to primary residences.) Research found that on the whole, Floridians would pay billions of dollars less in taxes.

With still five months until the primary, we expect cutting taxes will continue to be a talking point for both campaigns. No one's expecting Rubio or Crist to get to Washington and go all tax happy, but their records just aren't as pure as they claim. And to make matters worse, the two candidates will not step down from their respective rhetorical ledges. We say a pox on both their houses. And two more Falses.

See all our debate rulings at PolitiFact Florida.