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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Fact Check: Montana's U.S. House Debate

 U.S. House candidates Kathleen Williams and Matt Rosendale debate on MontanaPBS, September 23, 2020.
U.S. House candidates Kathleen Williams and Matt Rosendale debate on MontanaPBS, September 23, 2020.

The candidates for Montana's lone seat in the U.S. House met in their first debate hosted by MontanaPBS. Some fact checking in the debate was done by students and professors at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Associate Professor Lee Banville helped lead that effort and joins us now to walk through some of the highlights.

Corin Cates-Carney Lee, thanks for being here.

Lee Banville Yeah, thanks for having me.

Cates-Carney Republican Matt Rosendale and Democrat Kathleen Williams disagreed over how well the federal government and President Donald Trump have responded to the pandemic. In one claim, Matt Rosendale said Trump saved thousands of lives by imposing travel bans on China and Europe. Is that accurate? And how did that claim play out as these two debated the federal government's COVID-19 response?

Banville Well, I mean, they disagreed about a lot, and this is one of those things. So, you know, he strongly defended the president's actions. And, yeah, you're right, he said that it had been proven that ... the president saved thousands of lives.

We can't actually find a document that says this is a number of people who would have died if those travel bans had not been in place. But what we have seen cited by the president, by many of his supporters, is projections that were developed by universities; one's in Washington state, one is over in London, that would look at what would happen depending on what the governments did and societies did to respond to this pandemic and would project, you know, enormous differences. So if we did nothing, if we didn't wear masks, we didn't socially, there wasn't no, you know, shutdowns or anything like that, the university in London projected that as many as 2.2 Million people would die in the course of the pandemic. Obviously, we've not seen that number, but what we have seen is a number that really does put us among the countries most plagued by deaths due to COVID. So we do have the highest number of deaths overall, having just surpassed 200,000. And what we also found was that when you look at it, sort of more per capita, we ranked 11th overall in the world, 11th worst. But if you take out countries that are very small and have sort of populations, that skews statistics like that, we actually find that among the hardest hit countries we're the fifth worst in terms of a death rate.

I think Kathleen Williams, although she didn't really outline a specific plan that would have handled it differently, did point out that the president's handling has been widely criticized for being more ad hoc and state based, which has allowed certain communities to be hit fairly hard by this pandemic.

Cates-Carney The Affordable Care Act was another issue that took a role in the debate as Kathleen Williams and Matt Rosendale argued their points. The ACA is the national health law that allowed Montana to expand Medicaid coverage in the state. What did the fact checkers find about how Rosendale and Williams were talking about the law and what possible changes they wanted to see in the health care system?

Banville Yeah. There was a lot of back and forth about how effective, in particular the state auditor, Matt Rosendale, who oversees the insurance and securities industry, has had been in protecting some of the more popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act, like the protection against, you know, you can't be discriminated against because of a preexisting condition, for example.

And you know, what we see is, I mean, Rosendale has sort of built and offered -- not really built -- but supported insurance plans that abide by both state law and then the more lenient Trump version of the Affordable Care Act, which allows some people to purchase lower costs, sort of lower benefit health health insurance, which some have been critical of. They call it junk insurance because it's just doesn't do enough to protect all of us, because that's kind of the deal with insurance, is we all pay into a pool and then it gets paid out when somebody needs help.

And so that's been one aspect of the debate that was was pretty heated. And the other really did focus on Medicaid expansion, which is heavily subsidized by the federal government through the Affordable Care Act and provides health insurance to 92,000 or so Montanans. Matt Rosendale does have a very clear record of being opposed to that, initially. He voted against it in 2015 when he was in the Legislature, while Kathleen Williams voted in favor of it. But he has also sort of acknowledged the benefit it has had in helping those low income folks find health insurance. And so the future is really what's kind of up in the air. What we've seen in the past is that Matt Rosendale has been somewhat hesitant to get government programs like Medicaid expanded to cover more people. And Kathleen Williams has advocated for that.

Cates-Carney And are there specific additions or changes that Kathleen Williams says she wants to see of the program?

Banville So, I mean, when they when they get into the specifics is when we start to sort of lose clarity in a lot of these arguments. I mean, yeah, she has said -- one of the one of the proposals that she floated yesterday was the idea of perhaps allowing people to, at 55, join Medicare, which is something that typically happens when you're older. And that would obviously be a huge potential expansion of Medicare. We didn't really get into the weeds where, how much would that cost and how would you pay for it. But that she is looking at ways, too -- I mean, she has not endorsed some of the more sweeping, like Medicare for all proposals, but she has been looking at expanding Medicare to get more people covered.

Cates-Carney The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was another federal policy that the two differed on during the debate. One of the claims that Williams said was she doesn't want to eliminate the policy. How did that argument play out?

Banville So, Mr. Rosendale really hit Kathleen Williams a couple times with accusations that she wants to increase everyone's taxes by revisiting this 2017 tax cut. And she kind of avoided directly answering this question. I mean, she didn't say that she wants to repeal the entire cut, but she has said, as have other Democrats, Senator John Tester, for one, that the law that was passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Trump benefits too much the wealthy, and doesn't provide enough support for those who make less money. So middle income and even lower income folks. We did do some digging and found that one estimate of of the lowest 60 percent of earners in Montana saw a benefit of about $750 to $780 under those tax cuts. And if you eliminated all of them -- which she didn't say she would do, but she also didn't say she wouldn't do -- but if you eliminated all of them, that would be, you know, an increase in federal taxes for those folks of about $750. What Matt Rosendale kept saying was, you want to increase people's taxes $3,200 for an average family. And that is based on a Republican estimate before the tax bill kicked in. That said, if you made $73,000 as a family of four with two kids, based on child credits and the tax cuts, you would make about ... you'd have to pay about $3,200 less in taxes. And again, the increase that Matt Rosendale accuses Kathleen Williams of of proposing would require her to roll back all of the tax cuts that were passed in 2017, which she has not said she would do, but like I said, she has been critical.

Cates-Carney And Matt Rosendale has been very vocally supportive of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Banville Yeah. He, in fact, central to his response to COVID, he said the way we restart the economy is by making sure that those tax cuts are permanent. And so, I mean, that is central to his model, is to not just say, yeah, well, you know, they're pretty much good. It's you know, we want to lock these in forever.

Cates-Carney Was there anything else that stood out to you about the debate that really needed fact checking?

Banville I think that the accusations about campaign financing was one that popped up very late in the debate. And, you know, there was a pretty good back and forth where Matt Rosendale was critical of Kathleen Williams for taking a $3,000 a month salary from her campaign donations while she was running. She countered that, you know, she's an ordinary person who doesn't have an enormous amount of wealth, and so this is her job right now. And also hit the state auditor, saying you've been state auditor for three years and been making $92,000 a year and you've been being paid by the taxpayers while you've run for offices. So, you should probably be a little careful about, you know, throwing stones in that glass house. And I think, you know, that was probably one of the more spirited back and forths. And frankly, they're both right. So the facts check out. But it's really how do people interpret that?

Cates-Carney That's Lee Banville, an associate professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Montana. His class helped fact check some of the claims made by candidates for the U.S. House during their first debate on MontanansPBS Wednesday evening.

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