PolitiFact Oregon: Chasing down trivia, burying the truth

UPDATED: Furthermore, Oregon already has a state spending limit. See end of the post for details.

The Oregonian’s PolitiFact Oregon enterprise has long earned a reputation for obsessing over weird, trivial statements, judging opinions as though they are facts, and otherwise misusing the “fact-checking” concept to help push conservative talking points.

Rather than helping to give readers a deeper understanding of political issues and their impacts, PolitiFact Oregon instead occupies much of its time nitpicking non-issues.

Sen. Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls)

Sen. Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls)

Case in point: Yesterday, they published a PolitiFact looking at a statement made recently by Sen. Doug Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls) in a guest opinion in the Oregonian. Sen. Whitsett was trying to make a case for a constitutional cap on state spending; PolitiFact decided to check his claim that state spending would be lower today if a spending cap had been put in place in the ’90s.  (We also covered his statement when it came out: “Sen. Whitsett and the Case of the Extremely Bad Idea.”)

Okay… except nobody has ever disputed that claim. It’s plainly self-evident that a state spending cap would lower state spending. That’s the whole idea. Lo and behold, PolitiFact Oregon rated Whitsett’s claim as True.

Anyone familiar with the Oregonian’s transformation in the past few years knows that the newspaper never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to cover what really matters to the people who live in the state.

In covering one part of Whitsett’s statement that isn’t in dispute, PolitiFact Oregon utterly and predictably buried an opportunity to talk about what his bad idea would mean for Oregonians.

When Colorado passed this very same idea in the 1990s, it meant deep cuts to funding for K-12 schools and universities, cuts to healthcare, and cuts to services for struggling families. If this bad idea had been put into place in Oregon, it would have meant billions of dollars less for our schools and basic services.

You think times are bad for our schools now… think about what it would look like with $1 billion or more slashed from the K-12 budget.

Tying spending to something arbitrary like population growth completely ignores realities like: Skyrocketing prison costs to keep up with mandatory minimum sentencing laws, rising health care costs for our rapidly growing elderly population, federal mandates that tie up school spending, and the economic crisis that caused deep layoffs, devastated retirement savings, and left middle-class families with few places to turn for help.

(Check out Kari’s post at Blue Oregon for more on rising health care costs.)

Obviously, these potential impacts are the most important part of the story. But the Oregonian ignored them.

m48resultsMaking matters worse, PolitiFact Oregon buried the very important fact that when this question was put to voters, every single county in Oregon voted NO. It was Measure 48, and it lost statewide by 71% to 29%, making it one of the biggest electoral flops in recent history.

But readers of the Oregonian got none of this critical insight. Instead, they got 800 words parsing an undisputed—and irrelevant—claim.

Update, 3:30pm: One other extraordinarily useful piece of information left out of the Oregonian‘s story: We already have a state spending cap!

Since 1979 (amended in 2003), Oregon has had a law in place that caps state spending at 8% of personal income. The legislature can exceed the cap with a supermajority, but they’ve never needed to.

The law is codified in ORS 291.357. Read all about it in a 2004 memo here (pdf), and a paper from the Oregon Center for Public Policy here (pdf).

2 Responses to “PolitiFact Oregon: Chasing down trivia, burying the truth”

  1. Tomas Bozack

    The PolitiFact analysis is based on the fallacy that government should grow only in proportion to the growth in population, and not in proportion to the overall economy. Republicans like to use this criteria for calculating expected budget growth because it will always produce the result that make the growth of government seem larger than it is. But this alleged out-of-control growth goes away when expected growth is based on a more realistic criteria GDP growth, rather than population and inflation.

    In this case, PolitiFact Oregon says that 20 years ago the state budget was $20, and that it should be $36 billion today based on population growth and inflation, not the current $60 billion. I haven’t checked their numbers, but let’s assume they’re correct.

    But when you use GDP growth you get a completely different picture.

    The state GDP* was $63.4 billion in 1993 and $205.6 billion in 2012. Starting with a budget of $20 billion in 1992, the 2012 state budget based on GDP growth should be 20x(205.6/63.4) = $64.9 billion. This is MORE than $60 billion number cited by PolitiFact. So in 2012 the state budget was actually slightly smaller in proportion to the overall state economy than it was 20 years ago.

    Whether PolitiFact Oregon was being willfully dishonest or just incompentent is open to question, but basing government expenditures only on population growth shows a child-like simplicity of thought ignores what’s happening in the real world.

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