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Ad Watch: Do Gubernatorial Candidates Play Fast and Loose with the Truth?

Phil Murphy and Kim Guadagno stuff a lot of info into their 30-second TV spots. How much is on target?

There’s little more than a month left in the gubernatorial election, and the campaigns have begun to flood the airwaves with new ads to win over undecided voters. But with the 30-second format of today’s political ads, viewers aren’t going to get more than sound bites — with little or no context. That makes it tough to decipher if there’s anything to the claims candidates are making. The latest TV ads from Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno are a good case in point, and deserve a closer look.

Murphy’s ad was released yesterday by the former Goldman Sachs executive’s campaign. It starts out with an attack on the policies of current Gov. Chris Christie, who Guadagno has been serving alongside as lieutenant governor for the past seven-and-a-half years. Specifically, the ad takes issue with the level of funding provided to K-12 school districts during Christie’s tenure, and questions whether that’s led to higher property taxes. The ad also faults the Christie administration’s handling of state economic-development tax-incentive programs, and ends with Murphy pledging to revamp economic policy and restore fairness.

What the ad gets right

It’s true that the Christie administration, which Guadagno is a part of, has underfunded the state’s school-aid law since Christie took office in early 2010. That’s cost school districts across the state billions of dollars in aid that theoretically could have been used to ease the tax burden on local property owners. It’s also true that during Christie’s tenure the state has seen billions of dollars in tax incentives awarded to large corporations and other businesses as part of an effort to lure companies to relocate to New Jersey or to keep them from leaving the state.

What’s left out

Guadagno has been serving as the Secretary of State in New Jersey throughout her tenure as Christie’s lieutenant governor, putting her in charge of elections, and several other duties that don’t deal directly with how much school funding goes into the annual budget. And as a gubernatorial candidate, Guadagno has pledged to work with Democrats in the Legislature to overhaul the current school-aid law, putting issues like special-education funding on the table for discussion. But it’s not certain that Democratic legislative leaders would work with her on a school-funding overhaul — they’ve blocked a similar effort by Christie — so it’s not clear exactly how the school-funding issue would play out and how that could impact property tax bills.

The ad also doesn’t mention a signature proposal from Guadagno, which is her plan to institute a “circuit-breaker” program that’s specifically designed to ease the property tax burden on the middle class. Guadagno’s proposal — which relies in part on the success of a wholesale audit of state government that she’s proposing — would use more than $1 billion in state funding to provide the tax relief. The program would also look at how much school taxes are paid by a homeowner and factor in their annual income to help direct the funding to middle-income homeowners.

On the issue of the state’s economic-development tax incentives, while Guadagno did work on economic-development issues, Murphy’s ad also doesn’t say that the legislation that created the state’s current tax-incentive programs was written by Democrats who control the Legislature, and signed into law by Christie. It also doesn’t make clear that to receive the incentives, companies must meet certain standards established by lawmakers to generate a projected “net benefit” for the state.

What Guadagno’s camp said

“Goldman Sachs millionaire Phil Murphy's first TV ad shows he's from another planet … Kim Guadagno has pledged to lower property taxes during her first term or not run for a second.”

Guadagno’s most notable ad was released earlier this month, and it takes issue with a plan that Murphy has laid out to address some of the state’s biggest fiscal problems. The ad uses several clips from a debate hosted by NJTV and cosponsored by NJ Spotlight that aired during the primary. The ad also suggests Murphy’s positions on a host of issues could result in a litany of tax increases that would be difficult for state taxpayers to handle.

What the ad gets right

Murphy did spell out in detail during the NJTV primary debate that he is planning to generate more than $1 billion in new revenue to help address problems involving New Jersey Transit, the state’s chronic pension underfunding, and the failure by Christie to fully fund the state school-aid law. In fact, Murphy detailed during the debate exactly how he would collect the new revenue to address those fiscal problems in response to a lengthy question posed by NJTV’s Michael Aron. A portion of Aron’s question, which directly challenged Murphy to explain how his plan would work, is featured in the ad.

What’s left out

Just as Aron’s questioned is shortened, Murphy’s explanation about whether taxes would have to be raised to implement his plan is reduced to just two brief moments — when Murphy initially said “Yes,” and then after thanking the host of the debate, when Murphy said, “The answer is, ‘Yes.’” Not shown in the ad is Murphy’s full answer, including where he explains exactly which state taxes he would be willing to raise.

In the full explanation, Murphy told Aron — who took no position on the issue — that new revenue would come from hiking the state income-tax rate only on those making more than $1 million annually. Murphy also said he would generate new revenue by closing what he considers to be a loophole that allows multistate corporations to report some earnings in lower-tax states. He also said he could generate revenue by legalizing and taxing marijuana sales, and by imposing a new state tax on income earned by hedge-fund managers.

The ad also uses another clip from the debate, one that shows Murphy saying, “It’s a ton of money.” But the ad doesn’t make it clear that the clip didn’t come in response to the original Aron question about taxes. Instead, that Murphy comment came in response to a question posed by Aron nearly 15 minutes later when the issue of establishing single-payer healthcare in New Jersey was raised by NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney. Murphy said, “It has to be considered, (but) my only point is, it’s a ton of money.”

What the Murphy campaign said

“It is disappointing, though not altogether surprising, to see Lt. Gov. Guadagno start her ad campaign taking a page out of the Christie playbook by resorting to half-truths and outright lies in her very first campaign commercial.”

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