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Truth testing: The negative ads from Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Lisa Brown

UPDATED: Mon., July 16, 2018, 12:22 p.m.

Mailers sent out by 5th Congressional District candidates Lisa Brown and Cathy McMorris Rodgers. (Nathanael Massey / The Spokesman-Review)
Mailers sent out by 5th Congressional District candidates Lisa Brown and Cathy McMorris Rodgers. (Nathanael Massey / The Spokesman-Review)

The race for Eastern Washington’s seat in Congress has gone negative.

Both Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her Democratic challenger, Lisa Brown, have begun a two-sided battle of accusations in a primary race that includes three other challengers. Spokane residents likely have seen the evidence of the battle, as the two campaigns have combined to spend nearly a half million dollars in TV ads on just the four area broadcast stations alone. Slick mailers also are arriving in mailboxes.

The trend isn’t surprising. In a 2016 book written with two other authors, Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University, points out that negative ads have been on the rise in American politics for some time.

“Clearly, competition changes the air war into an offensive battle in which both sides believe that negativity is an important tactic in moving voters in their favor,” Ridout, along with fellow authors Erika Franklin Fowler and Michael M. Franz, write in their book, “Political Advertising in the United States.”

Ridout said in a recent interview that the turn to negativity is usually first seen in a challenger facing an incumbent. The state’s top-two primary system may be influencing McMorris Rodgers’ early shift to attacks on Brown, which have focused on taxes.

“If McMorris Rodgers can run up the score, go well above 50 percent, there may be less interest in groups supporting Lisa Brown in November,” Ridout said. “If Lisa Brown gets within a few percentage points, or does better than McMorris Rodgers in our primary, things do not look good for her.”

Here’s a rundown of some of the claims the two candidates have made about the other, and the story behind those attacks.

Claim: Lisa Brown voted for $2 billion in higher taxes during her time in the state Legislature.

Source: Cathy McMorris Rodgers TV spot, “Liberal Lisa.”

A 30-second TV spot appearing on KHQ-TV and other local outlets cites six votes Brown made in the state legislature between 1993 and 2012 as evidence of her proclivity for tax increases. Brown did in fact vote in favor of all those bills, but three of the increases focused specifically on increasing the price of a pack of cigarettes and applying that tax to “roll-your-own” cigarettes, which had previously been exempted under state law.

Another of the cited bills required out-of-state companies printing mailed advertisements that wound up in the mailboxes of Washington state residents to pay the same sales tax as those within the state. Supporters pitched it as a fairness issue, saying local companies were at a competitive disadvantage. McMorris Rodgers, then in the state House, voted against the bill.

A mailer that began hitting mailboxes Friday in Spokane said these were taxes “on Washington families.” These specific tax increases were on families of smokers and those purchasing liquor, and on families of those who work for a specific type of company outside of Washington.

That leaves two tax increases that were significant changes to the state’s business and occupation and excise tax structures. The first occurred in 1993, and is the source of another claim on this list. The bill in question raised the state’s business and occupation tax from 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent, which Brown would later defend as necessary to balance the state budget.

However, the tax was only in effect for roughly five years. It expired in 1998, and Brown was one of several lawmakers who, in March 1994, voted to repeal the tax after passing it. Among those who joined her was a freshman representative from Colville named Cathy McMorris.

The other major tax increase came in 2010, part of a sweeping slate of changes proposed by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire. The Office of Financial Management prepared a fiscal note that indicated the change would raise revenues by as much as $4.6 billion during the 10-year period ending in 2019. The state, at the time, was facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall, leading Republican lawmaker Rep. Larry Crouse to opine that the financial condition of the state was “possibly the worst year I’ve ever seen.”

Among the changes that made it into state law were new requirements on businesses that must pay taxes in Washington, eliminating conditions under which some businesses could avoid paying taxes and additional sales taxes on the sale of bottled water and candy.

Brown served as the Senate’s majority leader at the time, and the bill passed her chamber on a 25-21 vote. Gregoire signed it 11 days later.

The total amount of tax increases claimed by the McMorris Rodgers campaign appear to be from the Office of Financial Management’s revenue projections for each piece of legislation, which were created at the time of passage.

Claim: McMorris Rodgers “accepts millions in campaign contributions from special interests, including drug companies …”

Source: Brown mailer on health care.

The website Open Secrets, which tracks campaign spending, lists McMorris Rodgers’ congressional career campaign earnings at $18 million. Contributions from political action committees total $7.8 million, or roughly 43 percent of her overall fundraising. Most of the rest comes from individuals.

Among the pharmaceutical companies that have given to the congresswoman in this election cycle: Pfizer, Amgen, Abbvie and Eli Lilly & Co.

Of course, Brown has also accepted money from groups representing an ideology.

Claim: Brown says “… I don’t take corporate PAC money. Period.”

Source: Lisa Brown TV spot.

The Washington State Republican Party has launched a website questioning the claim from Brown that she is not taking corporate money. They say that Brown has taken “hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate money” during her political career, and continues to do so through intermediary political action committees during this election cycle.

Of course, so has McMorris Rodgers, as the above claim shows.

Brown has accepted contributions from PACs that represent labor interests and that are backed by other Democratic politicians. One of her largest donors is PAC to the Future, a committee that is backed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic speaker of the House.

That committee has, in turn, taken money from the Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., PAC; Amgen, Inc.; and the Delta Air Lines PAC. Several other committees that have given to the Brown campaign list contributions from so-called “corporate PACs,” which Open Secrets defines as “a committee funded primarily by employee and individual contributions.” The funds aren’t coming directly from corporate treasuries.

There’s a difference between corporate PAC money and corporate money, Ridout said.

“If you go on the website, you know the FEC website or Open Secrets, it will say donations from Microsoft, or whatever,” he said. “Now, those will be donations from employees from Microsoft, which really complicates things, doesn’t it?”

Even so, Brown’s claim in the ad is that she’s not receiving money specifically from corporate PACs, and that’s the reason the group End Citizens United is backing her candidacy. Brown is accepting money from PACs that are themselves taking money from corporate PACs.

Brown said Friday she didn’t believe her contributions from other politically affiliated groups that may take money from corporate committees was the same as directly taking money from them.

“If the point is that some of them accept corporate PAC money, and that’s perfectly legitimate for them to do, for them to support me, to me that is not the same thing as taking corporate PAC money,” Brown said.

She accused Republicans of targeting her contributions as a way of deflecting from McMorris Rodgers’ significantly larger contributions from corporate groups.

Claim: Lisa Brown is a “career politician.”

Source: Cathy McMorris Rodgers TV spot “Liberal Lisa.”

McMorris Rodgers’ ad opens with the assertion that Brown is a “career politician.”

Brown was an economics professor for 12 years before she joined the Washington state Legislature in 1993. She continued to teach at Eastern Washington and Gonzaga universities during her time in the Legislature. After leaving the Senate at the end of 2012, she served five years as chancellor of Washington State University.

By contrast, McMorris Rodgers’ job after graduating Pensacola Christian College was as an aide to state Rep. Bob Morton, whom she replaced in 1994. She’s been in politics ever since.

In total, as of Sunday, McMorris Rodgers has served 8,953 days in office between her time in Olympia and Washington, D.C. Brown has served 7,310 days.

Claim: McMorris Rodgers “succeeded in getting a 10-year extension for children’s healthcare funding.”

Source: McMorris Rodgers mailer on health care.

Congress passed legislation in February that included a decade of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, whose funding had been imperiled for months as lawmakers couldn’t come to terms on a long-term spending plan for the country.

McMorris Rodgers originally backed legislation in the House of Representatives that included six years’ worth of funding for the program, which provides assistance to families who earn too much for Medicare but can’t afford other coverage. The 10-year deal was first negotiated in the U.S. Senate, who sent the bill to the House for approval. It was later signed by President Donald Trump.

So, while the House did approve a bill that includes a decade of spending for the program, the long-term deal was first approved by the Senate.

Claim: Brown “created the Breast & Cervical Health Program.”

Source: Brown mailer on health care.

The Breast & Cervical Health Program is run locally by the Spokane Regional Health District. It provides free screening for breast, colon and cervical cancer by licensed physicians to women and men who meet income eligibility requirements.

The program was established by state law in 2006, but Brown had been proposing funding for a state-level program since at least 1998, according to legislative records.

Prior to the state program’s inception, the Centers for Disease Control provided federal funding for screening programs. The legislation Brown sponsored, which was eventually written into law, makes no financial commitment, only that the state must run a screening program.

Brown was joined in those efforts by several other lawmakers. Like many claims made by both her and McMorris Rodgers in their communications, the accomplishments are rarely without legislative allies.

Claim: McMorris Rodgers “fought to allow pharmaceutical companies to keep charging more for drugs, costing taxpayers $26 million over 10 years.”

Source: Same Lisa Brown mailer as above.

This claim cites a March 24 story by the Associated Press indicating that a Seattle-based pharmaceutical company had lobbied House Republicans successfully for preferential treatment in a massive spending bill.

That article focused on one manufacturer of a cataract drug, with the trade name Omidria. It was one of four drugs that the legislation added to what’s known as Medicare’s “pass-through” list, a slate of drugs that the program will pay for, plus 6 percent on top of the sales price, for hospitals to use.

The program was created as a way to encourage the use of new, potentially groundbreaking treatments. It also increases the costs that Medicare covers for a procedure, which opponents have said conflicts with the statements of several GOP members, including McMorris Rodgers, who say they want to drive down the costs of prescription drugs.

Jared Powell, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, said the drug’s inclusion in the list provided an outlet for doctors to use what he called the only FDA-approved drug for the procedure.

“This was an issue of Medicare stopping reimbursing something they’d been reimbursing,” Powell said.

The McMorris Rodgers campaign also said the effort to include the provision was bipartisan. Bryan Watt, a spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, said she was aware of the issue, but didn’t push for inclusion of Omidria on the “pass-through” list.

Unlike other lawmakers who lobbied for the drug’s inclusion, the McMorris Rodgers campaign has not received any direct contributions from the drug’s maker, Omeros, or its chief executive officer, according to FEC filings.

Other post-operation drugs in cataract surgeries have been linked to blindness cases in Texas.

Claim: McMorris Rodgers “fought to pass the Faster Care for Veterans Act, which will cut back wait times for veterans and allow patients to begin scheduling their own appointments.”

Source: McMorris Rodgers mailer on veterans affairs.

The Faster Care for Veterans Act authorized the federal government to contract with a private company to explore options for providing online scheduling for veterans. The legislation was in response to news coverage in 2014 that showed widespread scheduling delays at health care centers across the country, which were linked to deaths of patients at the facility in Phoenix.

The law was signed in December 2016 by outgoing President Barack Obama, after sailing through both chambers of Congress with little to no opposition. There was no dollar figure attached to the legislation, and it called only for the creation of a pilot project to allow public and private partnerships to speed up wait times.

A contract was awarded in May 2017 to the company Document Storage Systems, Inc., for $19.6 million. The company launched its pilot project June 20 in three locations: Minneapolis; Bedford, Massachusetts; and Salt Lake City. The project is scheduled to last 18 months, and there have been no findings yet.

Veterans can schedule an online appointment with the Mann-Grandstaff Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but that’s through internal software developed by the federal government, not a result of the legislation.

Claim: McMorris Rodgers “fought to bring more doctors here by expanding the Spokane Teaching Health Clinic.”

Source: McMorris Rodgers TV spot.

Funding for the Spokane Teaching Health Clinic, and all graduate medical health clinics from the federal Health Resources and Service Administration, was caught up in the same budget battle that delayed funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program mentioned above.

The February spending deal funded the centers through 2019. A McMorris Rodgers ad implies that the doubling of funding for the clinics at a national level will lead to more medical students being trained in Spokane.

That’s not technically true, at least in the short term. While funding has increased to cover the costs of training residents at the clinic, the actual number of students who will be admitted to the program isn’t expected to change, said Jim Zimmerman, vice dean of administration, accreditation and finance at WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

The school’s share of additional funds will relieve some of the pressure on the clinic’s partners, including Providence Health & Services and the Community Health Association of Spokane, to subsidize the training of doctors.

“We’re on much firmer financial footing,” Zimmerman said. But the clinic does not plan to make use of its additional funds by expanding the scope of the program.

The Washington State Democratic Party took issue with the McMorris Rodgers ad, noting that the clinic was created during Brown’s tenure as chancellor of WSU-Spokane.

Claim: “In 1993, Brown voted in favor of one of the largest tax increases in state history.”

Source: Wikipedia entry, that has since been deleted.

This claim relates back to the first charge, which has been leveled both in official ads by the McMorris Rodgers campaign and online on a Wikipedia entry for Brown.

The statement was actually leveled at Brown by her campaign opponent for a state Senate seat in 1996, John Moyer. In a Spokesman-Review article cited by the Wikipedia entry’s author, the next sentence indicates, “Brown said Moyer mischaracterized the vote and said she backed the tax increase out of the need to balance the budget.”

The entry was deleted by Brown’s husband, Brian McClatchey, who responded to a question of his motives on Twitter.

“Read the article cited. It quotes a claim made in a debate about Lisa’s voting record. The Wikipedia article, however, states that claim as if it were a fact,” McClatchey wrote. He did not respond to a follow-up phone call about the edit.

The Washington Department of Revenue, in its summary of the changes made to the tax law, notes that the 1993 change was a “major increase in B&O tax rates.” It does not, however, compare the tax increase’s size to other measures.

Also, as noted above, Brown voted to scale back the tax increase the following year.