PolitiFact Florida Checks out Jeb Bush's Tax Cuts, Voter Purge

Jun 17, 2015
Originally published on June 17, 2015 10:51 am

It's been just a couple of days since Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for president - and already his time in Tallahassee is getting a lot of scrutiny. Did he cut $19 billion dollars in taxes? And what about those purges of voter lists? WUSF's Steve Newborn talks about this with PolitiFact Florida's Amy Hollyfield.

Jeb Bush has been no stranger to the 24-hour news cycle the past couple of days, since he officially announced he's running for president. A lot of what he told the crowd at Miami-Dade College hearkened back to his eight years in office as governor. So naturally, people are going to be taking a look back at his time in Tallahassee.

One of the comments he said recently during Gov. Scott's economic summit in Orlando was how sharp his budget knife cut taxes. He said, 'In Florida, for eight years we cut taxes every year, totaling $19 billion, creating a much better business climate."

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling on that:

Bush’s Right to Rise political action committee told us they came up with the figure (actually $19.3 billion) using data from Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research. This figure has been cited often by both politicians and the media, but the details are where things get tricky.

Without putting you to sleep with nitpicking of revenue projections, this is what Right To Rise did: Using an annual state report called the Fiscal Analysis in Brief, the PAC tallied the total of all revenue changes from legislative changes in each year between the 1999-2000 and 2007-08 fiscal years.

Here’s where we come to our first round of caveats. Economic experts told us those revenue changes aren’t all necessarily tax cuts. Each year includes dozens, if not hundreds of different legislative actions, ranging from fee and license changes to sales tax holidays and lottery proceeds. Those aren’t all what we’d consider tax cuts, they’re just changes in how much the state collected.

It’s also a good thing Bush used the term "we," because the revenue changes resulted from action by the Legislature. Bush’s influence and his line-item veto power did come into play, but he can’t take credit for all of these measures. He has said, "I cut taxes to the tune of $19 billion" before, though.

Right to Rise added up those cumulative revenue changes for each year and developed a formula to estimate how much state revenues have been affected since. Our experts told us that’s acceptable, but it makes things more complicated.

It means, for example, that if taxes were cut in 1999, Right to Rise counted those revenue changes for each subsequent year through 2007. By the end of Bush’s term, we’re looking at eight years of cumulative tax savings. If you really want to read the fine print, you can see the PAC’s estimates here.

The nominal dollars saved using those projections totaled more than $17.6 billion, but the PAC adjusted the estimate into 2007 dollars. That leaves us with the $19.3 billion estimate.

Economists told us while it was fine to adjust the projections for inflation, there are limitations to that estimate. That’s mostly because analysts don’t really know what would happen to any given revenue source in the real world.

"I think it’s kind of tough to make this kind of analysis, because the economic impact is listed, but would change as the economy changed," Norton Francis, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, told us. "They’re basically looking at a point in time, going back and revisiting it."

Two big specifics

If you’re still with us at this depth of wonkishness, there’s more to consider.

A big chunk of the $19.3 billion in projected tax savings came from the 2001 law to phase out the federal estate tax, which was backed in Washington by Bush’s brother, then-President George W. Bush. The state essentially received a share of this federal tax, but lost that money when the phase-out was complete. According to the PAC’s projections, by the 2007-08 fiscal year that loss of estate tax money cost Florida about $848 million per year.

Sources told PolitiFact that it’s not really right for Jeb Bush to take credit for the federal repeal, because the state didn’t do anything.

"It’s not like anyone in Florida got rid of it," Francis said. "The federal government got rid of it."

Our ruling

Bush said "for eight years we cut taxes every year, totaling $19 billion."

He was citing a projection from his Right To Rise PAC that measured cumulative revenue changes from 1999 to 2007. The total of $19.3 billion is adjusted into 2007 dollars. The analysis includes the federal repeal of the estate tax, for which economists told us Bush couldn’t really take credit. It also includes a big cut to the state’s intangibles tax, which may not benefit your average person much.

Experts said there are limits to how economists can estimate the impact of legislative actions, but the PAC’s projections could be considered fair. What’s trickier is whether Bush can take credit for all the revenue changes or even call them all tax cuts.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.

Let's focus on something his potential adversary for president, Hillary Clinton, said about Bush recently:

"In Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, state authorities conducted a deeply flawed purge of voters before the presidential election in 2000. Thankfully, in 2004 a plan to purge even more voters was headed off," she said in a speech at Texas Southern University on June 4, 2015.

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

The 2000 purge

In 1997, thousands of corrupt votes were cast in a Miami mayoral election, prompting state lawmakers to approve election legislation in 1998. The bill went into effect without the signature of Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. (A spokesman for Chiles at the time told the Miami Herald that he objected to a provision in the law related to absentee ballots.)

This was the legislation that eventually led to the 2000 purge.

The 1998 law provided $4 million to weed out dead people and felons from the state's voter rolls. So the Department of State hired Boca Raton-based DTS Technologies to produce a list of possible felons. (In Florida, a felon couldn’t vote unless he or she underwent a cumbersome restoration process overseen by the governor and Cabinet.)

The company warned the state that their matches would produce many false positives, but state officials wanted DTS to use broad parameters, which meant more felons off the rolls. In August 1998, Secretary of State Sandra Mortham announced that about 50,000 felons and 17,000 dead people were on the voter rolls.

Almost immediately, questions arose about the accuracy of the list.

Twenty county election supervisors decided to ignore the state’s directive, because they found the data unreliable, including a Marion County elections supervisor who found her own name on the list.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said he received a list of about 700 names before the 2000 election.

"We did a check on it and could only find 30-some felons," Sancho said. "We cleared 94 percent of the list."

But not all counties did their own research on the "deeply flawed" list, he said. "If you went to vote on Nov. 7, and an official said you are on the list, if you tried to argue you could be arrested, and you were told so," he said.

Ultimately, it was Mortham’s successor, Katherine Harris, elected in 1998, who oversaw the 2000 purge along with a state elections lawyer Emmett Mitchell. (In 2003, Florida’s elected secretary of state became an appointed position.)

After the election, news organizations and other groups tried to figure out how many people had been denied the right to vote. But the numbers varied widely — though the reported estimates were higher than George W. Bush’s 537-margin in the 2000 presidential election. A 2001 Palm Beach Post investigation asserted that at least 1,100 eligible voters were wrongly purged. Other reports put the figure much higher.

The NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union sued the state in 2000, and the settlement required the state to run its old felon lists with new standards.

At a hearing before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in January 2001, Bush placed the blame for the state’s woes on election officials. But a divided commission concluded that many Florida leaders were responsible, including Bush, for the "unjust removal of disproportionate numbers of African American voters."

A week later, Bush along with the Cabinet implemented the commission’s recommendation to make the clemency process easier for ex-felons seeking to restore their voting rights.

Botched purge in 2004

The state compiled a new list of 47,000 potential felons before the 2004 election. But after a lawsuit forced the state to make the list publicly available in July 2004, the Miami Herald reported that more than 2,000 of those names -- many of them black Democrats -- should not have been on the list, because their rights to vote were restored through the state's clemency process.

A separate issue was that Hispanics made up 0.1 percent of the list, in a state where nearly one in five residents were Hispanic.

The state’s criminal database didn’t have "Hispanic" as a category, but voter registration rolls did have it, which created a discrepancy.

Less than two weeks after the list was released, the state scrapped the entire list, saying it was flawed.

Not including Hispanic felons on the list "was an oversight and a mistake. … And we accept responsibility, and that's why we're pulling it back," Bush said at the time.

But even before they tossed the list, state officials knew it was flawed. A May 2 internal memo detailed a half dozen missed deadlines, failed software programs, repeated miscues and personnel problems.

Our ruling

Clinton said, "In Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, state authorities conducted a deeply flawed purge of voters before the presidential election in 2000" and "in 2004 a plan to purge even more voters was headed off."

Clinton omits that this effort started before Bush was in office, though it did continue under his watch. In 2004, the state scrapped another purge after officials admitted errors.

The statement is accurate but needs additional information. So we rate it Mostly True.

 

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