The candidates for Florida chief financial officer are slinging a series of accusations against each other in dueling new television ads.
Democrat Loranne Ausley claims Republican Jeff Atwater helped his friends and wasted taxpayer dollars in the state Senate by backing a series of pet projects, including the $48 million "Taj Mahal" Tallahassee courthouse.
And Atwater claims that while Ausley served in the state House she pushed taxes for all: gas taxes, property taxes, and even taxes on seniors.
Turns out — neither one.
Ausley's TV ad
Ausley's ad, called "Mess," features an actor who plays Atwater accepting envelopes from men in suits and then tucking those envelopes into his jacket pocket. The allegation that somehow Atwater is taking bribes or kickbacks for his votes is unsubstantiated and should be ignored by viewers.
"Tallahassee's a mess, and Jeff Atwater's part of the problem," a narrator claims in the ad. "Atwater's busy helping his friends and wasting our tax dollars — $48 million for a government building so lavish it's dubbed the 'Taj Mahal,' $100,000 for a golf museum, and $110 million to build a private prison to help a big contributor."
The line is powerful, but it ignores both common sense and legislative realities in Tallahassee. We rated the claim False.
Take the golf museum. As a freshman state senator in January 2003, Atwater requested $100,000 to help cover future expenses at the PGA Historical Center in Palm Beach Gardens. The money was included in a Community Budget Issue Request — which is a budget request legislators make for local projects, the state's version of an earmark. The money, however, never made it into the final 2003-04 budget.
Love them or hate them, CBIRs have been a part of legislative process. (The Legislature stopped the practice in 2009.) Ausley herself has requested money for local projects before, including $300,000 to help create an information kit for new parents and $400,000 to restore Tallahassee's waterworks building.
The other two allegations against Atwater are even more dubious. The only connection to Atwater and the 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse? He voted for a massive transportation bill in 2007 that included a last-minute amendment providing a funding source for the building. The bill in question passed the Senate 37-2.
Atwater, for instance, was not mentioned in an e-mail circulated among the judges identifying "heroes'' in delivering the money to build the courthouse. And an audit of the courthouse project, ordered by current Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, largely laid blame for the project at the feet of the court and the Department of Management Services, the state agency that oversees construction and leasing of state buildings.
"Apparently I personally went out and hand-built the 1st DCA building," Atwater said in response to Ausley's claims.
And the $110 million in funding for the private prison, the Blackwater River Correctional Facility, was included in the 2008 state budget that Atwater backed. The state was facing what it thought would be a prison-bed shortage when it allocated the money. Proponents say privately run facilities cost taxpayers less, but they are opposed by police unions.
Atwater didn't vote to help a "big contributor." The company that got the contract to build the private prison — the GEO Group of Boca Raton — was selected by state administrators after lawmakers approved the budget. And the GEO Group isn't exactly a big Atwater contributor — we found $2,500 in contributions since 2000.
The private prison became a controversy only in 2010, when the state inmate population didn't grow as quickly as expected, and the Blackwater River Correctional Facility didn't have potential inmates. Atwater helped craft a deal to populate the prison by closing dormitories in other state-run facilities.
Atwater's TV ad
Make no mistake, Atwater's TV ad isn't much better. We rated it False, too.
The ad is called "Two Liberals," and liberally tries to tie Ausley to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Yes, they are both Democrats and women.
"This Washington liberal is raising taxes and wrecking our economy. Now, Pelosi has Loranne Ausley, the Tallahassee politician who wants total control … of our money," a narrator says. "Watch out, because Ausley's a financial train wreck for taxpayers — pushing gas taxes, property taxes, taxes on seniors.
"Pelosi and Ausley — too liberal, too costly."
In all three cases, Ausley didn't support higher taxes; she voted against tax cuts.
Ausley voted against a one-month, temporary gas tax reduction in 2004 that was estimated to cost $60 million but save the average driver $3.67. Ausley voted against the gas tax reduction because lawmakers had failed, in her mind, to boost teachers' salaries.
She voted against proposed massive property tax cuts in 2007 after Democrats argued that the tax cuts could harm funding for education and for police and fire protection.
And the tax on seniors wasn't really a tax on seniors. It actually was a tax on investments called the intangible tax. Ausley voted against cutting or eliminating the intangible tax several times while in the state House. The intangible tax, which was repealed by the Legislature in 2006, was a state tax paid on the value of investments such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, money market funds and unsecured notes. Savings accounts, pension funds, certificates of deposit and 401(k)s were not subject to the tax. Democrats argued that the benefit of the cut was largely to the wealthy and the loss of state revenue would hurt programs for the poor.
The race for chief financial officer may not be getting a lot of media attention, but we don't think distorting the truth is a good way to get your names in print.