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  1. Florida Politics

PolitiFact Florida: Did District 22 candidate push for state income tax?

Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes is facing a determined challenger in Democrat Judithanne McLauchlan for District 22, which stretches across Tampa Bay.

The Republican Party of Florida, acting on Brandes' behalf, is attacking McLauchlan, a political science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, on an issue where constituents are liable to pay most attention: their wallets.

In a TV commercial that began running in the Tampa Bay market last month, Brandes implied that McLauchlan wants to break with Florida orthodoxy by supporting a state income tax. A similar claim has been made by fliers being mailed to voters' homes.

The ad — which features actors pretending to be students being quizzed by a teacher — says, "McLauchlan was part of a group that supports imposing a state income tax on Floridians."

Accusing an opponent of wanting to raise taxes is Political Campaigning 101, but did McLauchlan really associate with people who wanted to tax Floridians at a state level?

McLauchlan has called the commercial a "repulsive attack" that used "unsubstantiated falsehoods."

"I oppose, will always oppose, and have always opposed a state income tax," she said.

So where did Brandes and the state GOP get the notion about a state income tax? If you look at the fine print, it reads that McLauchlan "served on Board of Directors of League of Women Voters." The ad uses her campaign site as the source.

The League of Women Voters bills itself as a nonpartisan political organization focused on developing informed policy positions and voter participation. It does not endorse candidates, and members from any political party may join.

McLauchlan's spokesman clarified that she is currently a member and was on the board of the St. Petersburg chapter from 2009-11, mostly working on voter registration initiatives. She also moderated candidate forums between 2011 and 2013.

The Florida chapter of the group stated where it stood on the issue in its most recent guide to public policy positions: "The LWVF supports the adoption of a state personal income tax as one part of a balanced and equitable tax structure." The booklet notes that the position was revisited most recently in 1991, although as far back as a 1966-67 study it argued that a statewide funding source that "would both be equitable and produce sufficient revenue was a personal income tax."

There also is a reference in the guide that says League representatives in 2007 spoke at seven statewide Taxation and Budget Reform Commission public hearings in favor of "an equitable tax system based upon ability to pay, which suggests a state income tax."

Saying the group "supports imposing" the tax isn't accurate, however, because although the League researched the issue and found an income tax a sound alternative, it doesn't lobby for the change or push it as part of a legislative agenda. They give opinions on policy issues, but don't propose processes to change laws.

We asked the Brandes campaign to clarify their argument. They pointed to a couple of member requirements on the St. Petersburg chapter's website: First, that members of a local chapter are also part of the state and national organizations, and that the group is "open to anyone who subscribes to the mission, principles, and policies of the League of Women Voters."

Second, the site says that members can't contradict the group. "Once League (local, state or national) takes a position on an issue, members may not identify themselves as League members in publicly expressing an opinion that is in opposition to a League position," the site reads.

League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab said that doesn't mean members can't disagree, just that they can't contradict the League's positions as a representative for the organization, such as while serving as a board member. If a board member of any chapter decides to run for political office, that person must resign from the board, although they may stay in the League.

"There is no requirement that members must subscribe to every position the League takes," Macnab said, suggesting the Brandes campaign is misreading the guidelines they cited. "We do have local League presidents who speak on behalf of the League, but we encourage our members to think what they want to think."

Macnab said the tax hasn't been studied since the 1990s. She said she felt most economists would agree a statewide income tax is much more fair than the policies the state has now, relying disproportionately on sales taxes, which are regressive, and property taxes.

The issue isn't on the table either way, Macnab said, because the state Constitution has provisions preventing the institution of an income tax.

The GOP claim is a stretch that contains an element of truth, but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/florida.

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