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Montana's U.S. House race: Fact-checking the TV attack ads - KRTV News in Great Falls, Montana

Montana's U.S. House race: Fact-checking the TV attack ads

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Rob Quist and Greg Gianforte Rob Quist and Greg Gianforte
HELENA -

With two weeks remaining until Montana’s May 25 special election to determine who will replace Ryan Zinke in the U.S. House of Representatives, both sides are bombarding the airwaves with attack ads, going after Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist. 

What’s true? What’s not? What’s in between? MTN News has fact-checked some of the central claims of these ads.

(NOTE: the Libertarian candidate, Mark Wicks, is not addressed in this article, as he has not run any campaign ads, and no candidate has run an attack ad against him. Wicks was included in our state-wide televised debate on April 29th, along with Gianforte and Quist.)

ATTACKS ON GIANFORTE: 

New Jersey millionaire? A day doesn’t go by without Democrats or Quist calling Gianforte a “New Jersey millionaire,” in press releases and TV ads, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.

Actually, Gianforte grew up in a Philadelphia suburb – before going to college at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and living and working in New Jersey until moving to Montana in 1994. He also established and sold a company there, making him a millionaire before he came to Montana.

Gianforte and his wife, Susan, have lived in Bozeman for 23 years, raised their family in Montana, and co-founded RightNow Technologies here, the software firm that grew to 500 employees locally and was sold in 2012 to Oracle Corp. for $1.8 billion.

The Gianfortes are certainly millionaires, with a reported net worth between $65 million and $315 million – but they’ve been Montanans now for more than two decades.

Public lands/access: Ads from Quist blast Gianforte for “blocking stream access near his estate” and giving “big money to groups trying to sell our public lands.” The reality is a bit more complicated, to say the least.

The Gianfortes sued the state in 2009, saying a public easement across their property, that granted access to the East Gallatin River, was erroneous and should be removed.

The state initially disagreed, but eventually reached an agreement that removed the easement and set up an alternative route nearby to allow fishing access to the river.

The Gianfortes had fenced off the easement, before the dispute was resolved, but said there was easy access to the river on either side of their property north of Bozeman.

As for the groups “trying to sell our public lands”? Gianforte has donated nearly $40,000 to free-market, conservative groups that occasionally have argued the federal government should consider selling some public land.

Gianforte has said he adamantly opposes selling public lands – but favors local input on management of some federal lands.

Tax policy: Quist ads accuse Gianforte of supporting a state sales tax in Montana and “more special tax breaks for millionaires like himself.”

The sales-tax comment quoted in the TV ads is from 15 years ago, when Gianforte spoke before then-Gov. Judy Martz’s tax advisory council, which was examining whether to cut Montana’s state income taxes.

He said it could be an “ideal solution” to move to a consumptive tax and cut or eliminate state income taxes, but acknowledged that a sales tax is politically unpopular in Montana.

Last year, during his campaign for governor, Gianforte also came out against a statewide sales tax.

The Quist ads alleging Gianforte supports “tax breaks for millionaires” references an MTN story from April 2016 that analyzed Gianforte’s tax proposal in the gubernatorial race.

The story noted that Gianforte’s proposal to eliminate Montana’s property tax on business equipment would primarily benefit large, out-of-state corporations – and that the majority of the benefits of his proposed income-tax reduction would go to higher-income households.

The Quist campaign also noted this week that Gianforte has expressed general support for President Donald Trump’s tax-reform plan and “Obamacare” repeal – both of which include tax cuts for millionaires.

Tax liens: Quist campaign ads say “Gianforte and his business” have had 22 tax liens filed against them.

This claim is basically false.

The liens, or tax warrants, were filed in Indiana against RightNow Technologies, the company  founded by the Gianfortes, for underpaying employee withholding taxes – but not until after the company was sold to Oracle in 2012, and thereafter.

Oracle officials have said Gianforte was no longer with the company when the tax warrants were filed.


ATTACKS ON QUIST: 

MTN News has fact-checked some of the major claims of these ads, which are financed by his main opponent, Republican Greg Gianforte, and groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Rifle Association. Here’s what we found:

Quist’s tax and financial woes: Opposition ads slam Quist for facing “multiple warrants” for not paying his taxes, being sued for another debt, and “stiffing” a contractor. One says he “didn’t pay his own taxes.”

Quist faced three tax warrants from the state for not paying $15,700 in back property taxes and penalties for 2007, 2011 and 2012. He and his wife, Bonni, paid them off last year.

He says he also eventually paid off the other debts, totaling about $16,000, including the contractor’s work from 16 years ago. A collection agency seeking nearly $10,000 in payment for a bank line of credit filed court papers last Friday saying the debt had been paid.

Quist told MTN News in March that most of the unpaid debts stem from financial problems he encountered while dealing with medical costs, including a $50,000 surgery in 2011 when he didn’t have health insurance.

Gun registration: Gianforte and NRA ads accuse Quist of supporting a national or “government” registry of gun ownership – which is currently barred by federal law.

Quist never said he supported a national gun registry – although he did suggest, in a January interview with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, that there should be registration for “assault rifles.”

“You register your car to drive – why not register guns?” the Chronicle quoted him as saying – after which he said he supports the right to bear arms.

All of the TV ads attacking Quist on gun rights reference the Chronicle interview.

Quist has since said he opposes a gun registry, that current gun laws in Montana are adequate, and that he was misquoted by the Chronicle. His campaign says he was talking then about fully automatic weapons, which already are registered.

“Government” health care: Ads from Gianforte and the Congressional Leadership Fund accuse Quist of wanting to raise or spend taxes for a “government takeover” of health care or “government health plan more expensive than Obamacare.”

The accusations stem from Quist statements that he likes a single-payer health plan, or “Medicare for all,” which would be taxpayer-financed health insurance for everyone.

Payroll taxes fund our current Medicare, which is government-run health insurance for all citizens 65 and older. The insurance pays medical bills from private health-care providers.

Quist has not said specifically how or whether a Medicare-for-all plan should be enacted, and instead has said that the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – should be strengthened.

Cuts in military spending: Gianforte and CLF ads say Quist supports “devastating” or “big” cuts to the U.S. military.

Quist has not called for any “big cuts” in the military – although he has implied that U.S. military and defense spending is excessive, telling the Chronicle in January that defense spending takes up “64 percent” of the federal budget and that it consumes money “that could be going toward health care or Social Security.”

When asked by MTN whether he supported cutting military spending, he said no, and added that he wants more focus on helping veterans returning from current and recent wars.

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