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Pasco House race mailers stretch truth to attack opponents

NEW PORT RICHEY — The race to succeed Mike Fasano in the state House is producing a glut of attack ads, including two recent mailers that stand out.

One claims that Democrat Amanda Murphy is out of touch with average voters and wouldn't be available, literally, because she'll be at her "Cancun vacation home."

The other says Republican Bill Gunter would "drain millions" from public education and give the money to for-profit schools.

With the House District 36 election set Tuesday, PolitiFact Florida decided to test the accuracy of these noteworthy mailers.

Does freezing equal draining?

First we'll examine the ad targeting Gunter's view on public education, which showed up in mailboxes a couple weeks ago:

"Gunter would drain millions from local public schools, and give our tax dollars to private, for-profit schools run by out-of-state corporations," the ad says.

The Florida Democratic Party financed the mailer. It cites a Times article, a preview of the Republican primary, published Sept. 13. In the story, three Republicans seeking the nomination weighed in on whether funding to public schools should be increased.

Gunter said he opposed increased state funding for education and suggested the private sector play a larger role, a statement he alluded to at least twice before: at a Sept. 4 candidates debate and in a questionnaire, where he stated: "Money isn't the issue. . . . Highest per pupil spending districts are some of the worst in the nation."

None of his statements referenced "for-profit schools run by out-of-state corporations."

Joshua Karp, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, said freezing educational spending at its present level would result in cuts to Pasco schools to offset rising expenses. Also, diverting state funding to the private sector, or charter schools, takes away money from public schools, he said.

Olga Swinson, chief financial officer for Pasco schools and the past president of Florida School Finance Officers Association, said a state funding freeze might result in budget cuts if costs for salaries, pensions, insurance, utilities, maintenance and other services go up at the same time. Many of those costs have indeed increased in recent years, leading to cuts.

"With every fund that we have, we would have to make do or we would have to start cutting programs," she said.

Whether those cuts would amount to "draining millions" from the district is debatable, but Swinson wouldn't rule out the possibility and explained that the depth of cuts would depend on how much insurance, maintenance, pensions and other costs increase. Enrollment levels and local revenue streams would influence spending as well.

Additionally, there's little evidence to the Democrats' claim that earmarking state funds to charter schools would enrich "for-profit schools run by out-of-state corporations." Most of the seven charter schools operating in Pasco are locally owned. The Imagine Charter School of Land O'Lakes is owned by a Virginia-based company.

The ad makes broad assumptions that district costs would swell by millions of dollars, leading to cuts, that local revenues wouldn't keep pace and that charter schools owned by out-of-state companies would get tax money. That's a lot of assuming. Still, history shows that education costs are consistently on the rise.

We rate the claim Mostly False.

Time shares, not vacation homes

The ad attacking Murphy is more personal in tone.

Above a picture of a beach dotted with cabanas overlooking crystal-blue water, it says: "Amanda Murphy: Out to lunch — at her Cancun vacation home."

It continues: "It's bad enough we can't trust Amanda Murphy with our money, but with two vacation homes around the world, can Amanda Murphy really relate to the challenges we face?"

Like the other ad, it showed up in mailboxes a couple of weeks ago. Citizens for Fairness, an electioneering communications organization based in Melbourne, produced the ad. Efforts to reach the group's chairperson, Carmella K. Falcone, were unsuccessful.

We can't rate whether Murphy is trustworthy "with our money" on the Truth-O-Meter, but voters may find her financial disclosures informative.

State Division of Elections reports indicate she earned $176,047 last year as an investment adviser at Raymond James Financial.

She earns well more than the average Pasco resident. Her income is roughly three times higher than the $51,000 median family income in Pasco, according to U.S. Census data.

Her biggest asset is her house in New Port Richey, valued at $157,480. Based on August sales data, her home is worth about 65 percent more than the average New Port Richey home valued at about $95,000.

Here's where the ad veers from the truth: Murphy's net worth is listed as $243,817 and includes a $12,900 timeshare in a Cocoa Beach condominium and half a timeshare worth $7,362 in a condo in Cabo San Lucas on Mexico's Baja California peninsula.

A time share — which typically entitles the owner to a week or two of use of the space each year — is hardly comparable to owning a second (or third) home in a pricey vacation spot.

So the claim she has "two vacation homes around the world," including in Cancun, is misleading. It suggests Murphy owns the homes when in fact she owns a time share in a Florida condo and half a share in a condo in Cabo San Lucas — not in Cancun, which is on the Yucatán Peninsula about 1,480 miles to the east.

Elsewhere, the ad calls Murphy a "Wall Street broker," suggesting she works among the financial giants far removed the problems of Pasco voters. It's true Raymond James is a brokerage, but it's a regional brokerage based in St. Petersburg, not in New York City. Murphy works out of the company's Tampa office.

The ad attempts to portray Murphy as an out-of-touch millionaire but uses flimsy evidence to support that picture.

We rate it Mostly False.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

The statement

Bill Gunter would "drain millions from local public schools, and give our tax dollars to private, for-profit schools run by out-of-state corporations."

The Florida Democratic Party, in a campaign mailer

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly False
Gunter says he favors charters schools and does not favor increasing public school budgets. The ad makes broad assumptions that school costs will swell, leading to cuts, and that charter schools owned by out-of-state companies will get tax money. There are many assumptions here. We rate the statement Mostly False.

The statement

Amanda Murphy has "two vacation homes around the world."

Citizens for Fairness, in a campaign mailer

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly False
Murphy owns a time share in a Florida condo and half a share in a condo in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, not Cancun. We rate the statement Mostly False.

Pasco House race mailers stretch truth to attack opponents 10/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 11, 2013 7:40pm]

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