Reporters Spin Ref. C Myths

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Reporters Spin Ref. C Myths

by Ari Armstrong, November 20, 2005

Journalists with the large Denver papers continue to spin myths about Referendum C, even after the election.

In his November 17 article for The Denver Post, Mark Couch states, "Most of the road money in the governor's proposed budget -- $216 million -- automatically flows into transportation projects because of a funding formula the state had in place before the Referendum C election... Owens takes road funding a step further by asking lawmakers to provide an additional $80 million. Some critics suggested his plan violates Referendum C, which calls for dividing extra funding into one-third portions for health care, public schools, and state universities and colleges."

However, contrary to Couch's statement, Referendum C does not call "for dividing extra funding into one-third portions for health care, public schools, and state universities and colleges." The language of Referendum C was sent to voters as part of the "2005 State Ballot Information Booklet," the Blue Book (also available online), and Referendum C simply doesn't contain the language that Couch claims it does.

The language to which Couch refers is actually part of House Bill 05-1350. As I pointed out in September, 1350 was passed by the legislature to supplement the language of Referendum C, but 1350 is not part of Referendum C. As I wrote, "However, this legislation is not part of Referendum C, it is not voter-approved, and it is subject to change by any future legislature." (At the time, I did not include the point about already-established spending formulas, so Couch's comments on that matter are helpful.) Now, predictably, people are fighting over the money, precisely because it was never clearly allocated.

So how did Couch rationalize his fabrication that the language of 1350 is part of Referendum C? In an e-mail, he cited a web page from the "Yes on C&D" campaign. Yet it is totally irresponsible for a news reporter to take his talking points about the language of the measure from the partisan "yes" campaign rather than from the official documents.

The "yes" campaign's web page (archived here as a screen-save) cites bills 1194, 1350, and 1317, but it fails to point out that Referendum C consists only of the language from bill 1194. Indeed, the language of bill 1350 explicitly states that it is not part of the voter-approved language of 1194 / Referendum C (see Section 2).

But Couch isn't the only Denver journalist to misstate the basic facts about Referendum C.

In her November 16 story for the Rocky Mountain News, Ann Imse correctly states that it was "the message of the just-completed election campaign for Ref C, which told voters the additional revenue would go to K-12 schools, higher education and health care" (based on the language of 1350). Imse also correctly writes, "Although the campaign told voters the new money would be divided 30 percent each among K-12, higher education and health care, the actual language of Ref C adds transportation and police and fire pension funds to that list." Why Imse treats the official language of Referendum C as though it were some secondary consideration is a mystery.

Imse adds the following incorrect statement: "Ref C itself says nothing about how it would be divided. That depended on Ref D, which was not approved. Therefore, Owens' plan to put two-thirds of the Ref C money into roads this year is allowable, [state economist Henry] Sobanet said." Here Imse's description is wrong. Had it been approved, Referendum D would not have determined how the money from C would have been spent, except that it would have required that a small amount of the money from C go to pay off the debts of D. (Referendum D also would have increased state spending by up to an additional $100 million starting in 2011.) Again, the real debate is over whether the legislature will follow or alter the language of 1350.

Imse does add another interesting line. I have claimed all along that Referendum C is a "shell game." Apparently the governor's economist agrees, if Imse's account is accurate: "Sobanet said Ref C's new money could be spent on these three areas, but then money already allocated to them last spring could be taken away, and spent on roads and reserves."

The news reports of Couch and Imse, then, contain misstatements of basic facts about Referendum C. Mike Littwin makes a more subtle error in his November 17 column for the News. Littwin provides some useful information about the spending formulas already in place. But then he adds a curious segment: "If you want to know where the rest of the Ref C money went: Most goes to programs already in the budget. We were told by opponents of Ref C not to believe that. Now, you know there would have been hundreds of millions of dollars in real, people-harming cuts if Ref C had failed." But Littwin fails to point out that "the budget" includes already-anticipated spending increases of several hundred million dollars. His hypothetical "cuts" are almost entirely "cuts" in anticipated increases. I have consistently reviewed the budget forecasts accurately -- not that Littwin has bothered to relate the complete information in his column. Littwin cherry picks only those data that fit his bias.

An editorial in the November 18 News misrepresents the views of the opponents of Referendum C and fails to distinguish between Referendum C and the language of 1350: "And the governor wants to spend $80 million of what remains [after most of the money is spent by formula] on roads, too... Which isn't peanuts, of course, but hardly amounts to the obscene windfall that some opponents of Ref C predicted the state would enjoy... To be sure, there's a serious argument against Owens' plan for the $80 million: When lawmakers put the amendment on the ballot, the legislation promised to divide Ref C money among health care, higher education and K-12. But the legislation also envisioned paying off highway bonds in Ref D, which failed, and Ref C itself specifically mentions bridges and highways as targets for funding."

Following is my reply (I don't know who actually wrote the house editorial):

Dear Messrs. Carroll and Blake,

Kindly quote an opponent of Referendum C who claimed that, in the first year, the state would receive an "obscene windfall" from Referendum C. As I've noted all along, and as your newspaper has mostly ignored, the amount of money collected by Ref. C is expected to increase every year.

While in September both Legislative Council and State Planning predicted modest drops in the major portion of general-fund spending during 2006-07, both offices also predicted record-high general-fund spending every year after that, without Ref. C. Your newspaper didn't seem to think that this fact was worth much attention.

Also, you should better-differentiate Referendum C, which is based on bill 1194, from the language of bill 1350, which is NOT part of Referendum C. While I pointed this issue out in September, the (rest of the) media didn't seem to find much interest in the subject until after the election, now that people are predictably fighting over the money.

Thanks, -Ari

To a large degree, the media have served as the propaganda arm of the "Yes on C&D" campaign. Now, even after the election, some reporters still can't be bothered to get the basic facts straight regarding Referendum C.

[November 22 Update: In an article today, Couch describes an additional point of contention: "Owens assumes that the state should calculate road funding in the budget based on revenues from the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1. According to his 12-month calculation, the state would have $215.8 million for roads based on a formula already in state law. Owens also makes a special request for an extra $80 million in road funding. But voters didn't approve Referendum C until Nov. 1, so legislative forecasters assume that only seven months of revenue are available for the road-funding formula. They estimate the state would have $124.8 million for that purpose." This debate further illustrates the fact that the money from Referencum C was never clearly allocated.]

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