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When is a vote not a vote? It depends on who’s doing the counting, apparently.
And with about five weeks to Election Day on Nov. 6, the issue of tax hikes is one of the latest volleys in the heated Bob Menendez-Joe Kyrillos campaign for U.S. Senate.
The Kyrillos campaign, for example, claims Menendez, a Democrat, has never met a tax increase he didn’t like – and support.
"Bob Menendez actually voted in favor of higher taxes more than 70 times!" states an Aug. 29 news release posted on a campaign website for Kyrillos, a Republican from Monmouth County.
"These are direct votes against tax cuts as well as votes to raise taxes, votes in favor of reducing proposed tax cuts, votes for non-binding resolutions supporting taxes, among others," Kyrillos spokeswoman Meaghan Cronin said in an e-mail that included a list of 72 Menendez votes.
The Kyrillos campaign’s claim has a degree of accuracy, but there’s some important context missing.
Our analysis of the 72 shows that in many cases, Menendez’s votes support or give tax breaks to the middle class by reducing or eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy and big business. Many of Menendez’s votes were for education, needy children, agriculture, the environment and the disabled. Still others were for national security and safety.
But there are some issues with those votes. More than half of the 72 do not actually change tax policy or law. Others have to do with procedural rules for voting, which also cannot change law.
Let’s look at two examples.
Menendez in 2006 voted to increase a congressional spending limit by $965 million to put more money toward port security. That money would be offset by ending certain corporate tax breaks.
In 2011, Menendez voted to end debate on a bill asking those earning $1 million or more to make "meaningful contributions" to help reduce the deficit. That procedure then allows an immediate vote.
For some, the senator’s intent is key.
"This is not to take a partisan side either way but I would think most people reading about a record like this would ask the simple question, what the intent of the person was casting the vote, besides what the actual outcome was," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman with the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va. The NTU advocates for lower taxes and smaller government.
Seth Hanlon, director of fiscal reform for the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, had context concerns.
"This controversy that they’re having here is, if you get past the semantics, it’s basically about whose tax cuts we’re talking about: Tax cuts for the middle class he supports very consistently or supporting tax breaks for very wealthy people, millionaires, oil companies, corporate tax breaks," Hanlon said. "We need to look through the semantics and look at the record on middle class tax cuts."
Paul Brubaker, Menendez’s communications director, said the vote list shows Menendez’s support for siding with the middle class over millionaires and corporate special interests.
And there’s another issue to consider: is voting against a tax benefit for one group in order to fund a tax break for another group the same as a tax increase? That’s the case for many of the resolutions that can’t change tax law.
PolitiFact National addressed that question in an August fact-check about a U.S. Senate race in Florida in which the Republican incumbent accused his Democratic challenger of voting 150 times to raise taxes.
Our colleagues spoke with a few federal budget experts who generally agreed that a vote against a tax cut doesn’t equal a tax increase.
Chapin Fay, Kyrillos’ campaign manager, disagreed.
"All of the votes we cite are votes in favor of higher taxes," he said in an e-mail.
The Kyrillos campaign claims in a news release that "Bob Menendez actually voted in favor of higher taxes more than 70 times!"
More than half of the votes cited by the Kyrillos campaign have no effect on tax law or are procedural matters. There also are Menendez votes that give or extend tax breaks to the middle class at the expense of the wealthy and corporations – but federal budget experts have said that a tax break for one group isn’t the same as a tax increase for another.
Menendez did vote in favor of bills that would mean higher taxes, so there’s an element of truth to the claim. But since so many of the bills would have no effect on tax law or policy, that’s a critical fact that would give a different impression – and that meets the definition for Mostly False.
To comment on this story, go to NJ.com.
Joe Kyrillos campaign website, "Kyrillos Campaign Responds To Senator Menendez’ Tax Charge" news release, Aug. 29, 2012, accessed Sept. 6, 13 and 20, 2012
E-mail interviews with Meaghan Cronin, Joe Kyrillos spokeswoman, Sept. 6, 12, 13 and 20, 2012
E-mail interview with Jerry Cantrell, spokesman, New Jersey Taxpayers Association, Sept. 6, 2012
Phone and e-mail interviews with Paul Brubaker, Bob Menendez communications director, Sept. 11, 13 and 20, 2012
Bob Menendez’s Votes In Favor Of Higher Taxes list, provided by Kyrillos campaign, Sept. 6, 2012
Project Vote Smart website, accessed Sept. 6 and 10, 2012
U.S. Senate website, accessed Sept. 10, 11, 12 and 19, 2012
Bob Menendez campaign website, "Menendez Campaign To Kyrillos: N.J.’s Middle Class Taxpayers Deserve To Know" news release, Aug. 29, 2012, accessed Sept. 13, 2012
Phone interview with Pete Sepp, spokesman, National Taxpayers Union, Sept. 20, 2012
Phone interview with Nick Kasprak, analyst, and Richard Morrison, manager of communications, Tax Foundation, Sept. 20, 2012
Phone interview with Seth Hanlon, director of fiscal reform, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Sept. 23, 2012
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