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A new super PAC ad accuses Mitt Romney of pushing deep cuts in education to finance a tax cut for the wealthy.
The ad from Priorities USA Action, which supports President Barack Obama, shows images of children playing, along with these words:
"Take away his toys, and he’ll play with a stick. Take away their bikes, and they’ll still find a way to get where they’re going. But if you take away early childhood education, slash K-12 funding and cut college aid for middle class families, they won’t go far. Yet that’s exactly what Mitt Romney wants to do to pay for a $250,000 tax break for multi-millionaires."
The kicker: "If Mitt Romney wins, the middle class loses."
A spokesman for Priorities USA told us that the claims about education refer to the budget proposed by Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. We’ll check whether the ad is accurate about the budget’s impact on education and if those changes are things Romney "wants to do" in order to fund a tax cut.
The Ryan budget
Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, first presented his budget in 2011. Versions of it have passed the House each of the last two years, but it has never passed the Democratic-controlled Senate. The 2013 proposal cuts $5.3 trillion from the federal ledger over the next decade by enacting major changes in entitlement programs and making steep reductions in discretionary domestic spending.
It’s important to keep in mind that Ryan’s plan doesn’t say which programs would be cut or by how much, nor does it dictate that programs be cut across the board.
On early childhood education: Nowhere in the Ryan budget is there a line item cutting Head Start funding, or any other program. But because the budget reduces federal spending so drastically -- from its current level of 12.5 percent of GDP down to 5.75 percent by 2030 -- experts say deep program cuts will be necessary.
The numbers alone have early education advocates nervous. One analysis by the National Education Association determined that Ryan’s proposed 2013 budget could eliminate spots in Head Start programs for about 191,000 children in 2014, and 2 million over the next decade. Head Start uses federal funds to provide education, nutrition and parent-involvement services to help low-income kids be school ready by age 5.
Romney’s campaign website does not mention early education. We would note that during his time as governor of Massachusetts, Romney vetoed a bill that had passed the legislature authorizing universal prekindergarten in the state.
On K-12 funding: the ad points to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. The study notes that a cut of 22 percent in 2014 of non-discretionary spending, plus more in subsequent years, "would force states and localities to reduce the quality and reach of their basic public systems — their schools, clean water facilities, and law enforcement activities, for example — or raise new revenue or cut other programs to continue meeting these needs. Either way, the result would be a huge cost shift from the federal government to states and localities."
Again, as this study points out, these cuts are speculative. It would be state and local governments deciding on the cuts, not the federal government.
On college aid for the middle class: This charge stems from a study by the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute, attempting to calculate the effects of Romney’s tax proposal. The proposal lacks detail but sets some broad outlines, including allowing the American Opportunity tax credit for higher education, which was part of the 2009 stimulus bill, to expire.
According to the study, Romney’s economic advisers say that the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) would revert back to the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) tax credit, which also provides aid to college students but is less generous and covers fewer Americans than the AOTC.
In addition, Romney and Ryan have been criticized for what could happen to federal Pell Grants in Ryan’s budget. The program provides the largest source of grant funding for needy college students, with more than 9.7 million students expected to get grants worth up to $5,635 per student in 2013, according to the Education Department.
Republicans say in documents accompanying the budget that they favor reining in the Pell program, by keeping the maximum grant award in 2013 at this year's level of $5,550, and other means. The House Budget Committee says it would stay at $5,550 for the full 10 years of the budget, though that’s not spelled out in the budget resolution itself. In fact, the budget resolution says nothing at all about Pell grants.
So where does Romney stand on the Ryan budget? That answer is something of a moving target.
In March 2012, Romney said in Chicago, "I’m very supportive of the Ryan budget plan. The following week, while campaigning in Wisconsin, he added, "I think it’d be marvelous if the Senate were to pick up Paul Ryan’s budget and adopt it and pass it along to the President."
More recently, since Ryan joined the ticket, Romney has said the two agree broadly. "I’m sure there are places that my budget is different than his, but we’re on the same page," he said in August. The campaign has also emphasized the Romney will put together his own plan.
But on his website, Romney makes this promise about "stopping the bleeding" of federal spending:
"Pass the House Republican Budget proposal, rolling back President Obama’s government expansion by capping non-security discretionary spending below 2008 levels."
Regarding the specific charges in the ad, the Romney campaign points to remarks he has made on the trail.
On early childhood education and K-12 funding: "I'm not going to cut education funding. I don't have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college. I'm planning on continuing to grow, so I'm not planning on making changes there," Romney said in his Oct. 3 debate with Obama.
On college aid: "We’re going to continue a Pell Grant program. … I think the Republican budget called for a Pell Grants being capped out at their current high level. My inclination would be to have them go with the rate of inflation," he said at a Univision Forum in Miami on Sept. 19.
About those multi-millionaires
Finally, the Priorities USA ad says Romney will make all these education cuts "to pay for a $250,000 tax break for multi-millionaires."
The dollar figure also comes from the Tax Policy Center study. The authors found that under Romney’s proposal, people with $1 million or more in annual cash income will receive an average tax cut of $250,535. Those in the millionaire category will receive an 11.8 percent increase in after-tax income, easily the highest of any income group. Collectively, the tax savings for millionaires would amount to nearly one-third of all the tax benefits that result from Romney’s plan.
But is the accounting really that simple?
There’s not a direct link between spending cuts and tax rates for the wealthy, said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
They’re separate policy areas, and legislation affecting each area would typically be handled separately.
Nevertheless, choices about spending and taxes are not entirely unrelated, given the imbalance in the federal budget in recent years and the significant debt that is building up, MacGuineas said.
We asked her in general about the various Democratic claims saying that specific spending cuts "pay for" tax breaks for the wealthy.
"It’s a huge fight over priorities and semantics," she said. "But it’s difficult to say that one is linked to the other."
Priorities USA Action said Romney wants to pay for a tax cut for multimillionaires by taking away early childhood education, slashing K-12 funding, and cutting college aid for middle class families.
Each charge is an interpretation of how the House budget, proposed by Ryan and somewhat embraced by Romney, could impact education at all levels. The warnings are plausible given the scale of spending cuts called for in Ryan’s budget, but they’re speculative -- these cuts aren’t specified in the Ryan budget, and Romney has said his policies would be different. Finally, spending cuts and tax breaks aren’t a one-to-one comparison, though they do reflect priorities.
The ad’s claim contains an element of truth but takes liberties as it tries to fill in the blanks in Romney's plan. We rate it Mostly False.
Priorities USA Action, "Sticks," Oct. 8, 2012
Email interview with Brennan Bilberry, Priorities USA Action, Oct. 8, 2012
Email interview with Robert Terra, Romney campaign, Oct. 8, 2012
Huffington Post, "Ryan Budget: Early Education Cuts Would Pull More Than Two Million Kids From Public Preschool," March 29, 2012
NEA, House FY 2013 Budget Resolution -- Impact on Head Start, March 2012
Education Week, "Early Childhood Spending In a Romney/Ryan White House," Aug. 14, 2012
New America Foundation, "Paul Ryan Probably Wouldn’t Defund Head Start (And Other Things Worth Knowing About Romney’s VP Pick)," Aug. 15, 2012
National Review, "Surprise, Surprise: Priorities Misrepresenting Romney’s Education Policies," Oct. 8, 2012
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Deficit-reduction package that lacks significant revenues would shift very substantial costs to state and localities," Aug. 8, 2012
The Tax Policy Center, "The Romney Plan," March 1, 2012
PolitiFact New Hampshire, "Romney/Ryan budget would be end of the road for college American Opportunity Tax Credit," Aug. 31, 2012
PolitiFact, "President Barack Obama says GOP budget cuts financial aid to college students," April 6, 2012
House Budget Committee, "The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal," accessed Oct. 9, 2012
New Yorker, "Fussbudget," Aug. 6, 2012
MittRomney.com, accessed Oct. 8 & 9, 2012
Wall Street Journal, "Romney on ‘Same Page’ With Ryan Budget Plan," Aug. 13, 2012
CNN, "Romney camp prepares Medicare defense after Ryan pick," Aug. 11, 2012
PolitiFact, "Barack Obama says Mitt Romney's tax plan gives millionaires an average tax cut of $250,000," May 8, 2012
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