Burke, Walker wield truth as tool in first debate

Democrat Mary Burke and Republican Gov. Scott Walker debated for the first time on Oct. 10, 2014.
Democrat Mary Burke and Republican Gov. Scott Walker debated for the first time on Oct. 10, 2014.

Democrat Mary Burke and Republican Scott Walker apparently both think they have truth on their side.

In their debate Friday night, the rivals for governor repeatedly made claims that PolitiFact Wisconsin has rated True, Mostly True or Half True.

On taxes, Burke said Walker cut taxes for top earners while raising them on working families. We rated a similar claim Half True. Walker cut taxes for wealthier residents and raised taxes for people on the lower end of the scale. But he also made tax cuts that applied across the board.

Walker said that this December’s property tax bills on a typical home will be lower than they were before he took office. We rated that claim Mostly True. It wasn’t all because of actions by Walker and Republicans in Madison, and the claim is based on projections that could change. But we found the governor’s main point was solid based on the specific citation he highlighted from a respected source.

On education, Burke said Walker approved the biggest education cuts in the country. We recently rated Mostly True a similar claim, from the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee, that said "Scott Walker cut school funding more per student than any governor in America."

The cuts Walker made in his first state budget were the largest based on two measures. But more recent figures indicate Wisconsin’s school spending cuts are no longer the largest, at least for a more recent period.

Burke criticized Walker for "divisive" Act 10 collective bargaining restrictions and said that despite how it helped state government finances, Walker has still left Wisconsin facing a $1.8 billion deficit.

The state’s nonpartisan fiscal bureau has said the state faces what is commonly known as a budget shortfall or "structural" deficit of $1.8 billion for the next budget period, 2015-’17.

That's an estimate of how much the next biennial budget -- if there are no changes in revenue or spending -- would be out of balance. In other words, the shortfall isn't actual red ink.

Walker countered by touting what he said were savings of $3 billion for taxpayers under Act 10, which was put in place in 2011.

We previously rated the $3 billion claim Mostly True. Requiring most state and local government employees to contribute more to their pensions saved taxpayers more than $3 billion. Those costs haven’t simply been eliminated, however. They’ve been taken on by public employees, who are also taxpayers.

Burke, who has said easing student loan debt is one of her priorities, contended that Wisconsin has 41,000 people on waiting lists for financial aid at tech colleges and universities. She blamed Walker for cutting funds to tech colleges.

Our rating on the 41,000 claim was Mostly True. There is a large waiting list, and Burke cites a credible source on its size. But some variations in how the lists are defined by the different institutions mean the number should be treated with some caution.

On health care, Walker said more people have health care thanks to his changes.

We rated a similar claim Half True. We said he can take some of the credit, given that everyone living under the federal poverty line is now eligible for Medicaid. But far more people are getting access to health care, whether from the government or private carriers, as a result of Obamacare.

Walker criticized the federal health care law known as Obamacare. Walker said Burke wants to expand it. We previously rated Half True a claim from Walker that Burke had expressed unequivocal support for the Affordable Care Act; we didn’t find evidence of that level of support. But Burke does back the law’s provision to make more people eligible for Medicaid.

On jobs, Walker adapted a recent claim we declared False -- that Wisconsin is 3rd in the Midwest "in the last year." In the debate, he was careful to note this was for a July 2013 to July 2014 period, then added -- as we noted in our item -- that from August 2013 to August 2014 the state ranked fourth.

In contrast, Burke stayed with her claim that Wisconsin is "dead last" in the Midwest for job gains under Walker.

We rated a similar claim False after a Burke TV ad said that new jobs numbers are in, and Wisconsin has "fallen to dead last in Midwest job growth."

In making the claim in September 2014, Burke ignored the most recent 12-month figures -- a common yardstick for economists -- that says Wisconsin’s performance improved and was better than two other Midwest states. She also shifted the time frame to her advantage.

When Burke made a similar claim in August 2014, we rated it True. At the time, the most recent quarterly numbers went to the end of 2013, so they matched with the first three years of Walker’s term. In addition, the most-recent one-year period at the time also showed the state last in the Midwest.