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Fact-checking the Biden vs. Rick Scott argument over Scott’s tax proposal

By Daniel Dale, CNN

A prominent Republican, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, is still falsely describing what his own tax proposal says.

President Joe Biden, meanwhile, is attacking Scott’s proposal by misleadingly describing a key number from a think tank’s analysis — an analysis based on rough assumptions about what Scott might mean — as if that number is much more definitive than the think tank says it is.

The prolonged argument between Scott and Biden, which has flared once more this week, is centered on a brief item in a document Scott released in February. The document, which Scott calls “An 11 Point Plan to Rescue America,” includes this two-sentence proposal: “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”

Democrats pounced on the senator’s proposal, correctly noting that forcing all Americans to pay some income tax would mean a tax increase for tens of millions of people. The Americans who don’t pay federal income tax — 75 million households in 2022, about 42% of the total, according to estimates from the Tax Policy Center think tank — include both jobless and employed people who don’t earn enough money to have to file tax returns; people who are eligible for refundable tax credits that exceed what they would otherwise owe in income tax; and some retirees, people with disabilities and stay-at-home parents.

Some Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have also rejected Scott’s tax proposal. And Scott — the chairman of Senate Republicans’ national campaign committee — has responded to the criticism by backtracking. He has both wrongly denied that he proposed any tax increase at all and obfuscated about how broad the language in his plan actually is.

Here’s a fact check of a claim Biden made in a speech Wednesday, of a claim Scott made in an interview Wednesday and of the senator’s continued insistence that he is not proposing a tax increase at all.

Biden’s claim about how much taxes would increase

In a Wednesday speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, Biden said Scott had laid out a plan “in writing.”

“It’s in writing,” Biden repeated. “And here’s what it does: It raises taxes on 75 million American families, over 95% of whom earn less than $100,000 a year in a combined income. It would raise taxes by nearly $1,500 per family. It’s all in writing. You can go online.”

Facts First: Biden’s framing of this “nearly $1,500 per family” figure was misleading. This figure is not “in writing” in Scott’s own plan — nor is it even from someone’s analysis of a specific policy Scott laid out in his plan document. Rather, the figure is a rough estimate, from the Tax Policy Center, of an entirely hypothetical policy that would satisfy the Scott plan’s vague call for all Americans to pay some income tax. A senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, Howard Gleckman, said in an email to CNN that their team “made assumptions about what a plan roughly like his idea might look like” and “we did not analyze Scott’s idea because it was not really a plan. It was just one sentence that left out many important specifics.”

Richard Kaplan, a law professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who’s an expert on US tax policy, said in an email: “In terms of ‘skin in the game,’ Sen. Scott provided no details, none. The Tax Policy Center analyzed a plan totally of their own creation that would ensure that everyone pays something, but its specific parameters cannot be attributed to Sen. Scott. He simply set out a general goal and might well balk when implementing provisions are considered.”

Scott has already balked at the Tax Policy Center’s hypothetical policy. Scott spokesperson McKinley Lewis said in a Thursday email that “these figures have no basis in reality.”

What the Tax Policy Center found

Still, Biden could fairly invoke the “nearly $1,500” figure if he did what the Tax Policy Center did — transparently explain that the figure comes from a think tank’s own suppositions about what a policy compliant with Scott’s stated goal of having all Americans pay some income tax could look like. (The White House noted in an email that press secretary Jen Psaki more precisely referred to the figure in April as having come from “one independent analysis.”) The Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the left-leaning Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, said in the introduction to the analysis: “Because Scott has not said how his plan would work, TPC analyzed a simple version consistent with his idea. … Other versions of Scott’s idea would carry a different price tag, though all would primarily burden low- and middle-income households.”

The hypothetical policy that the Tax Policy Center analyzed was a minimum tax in which every household regardless of income would have to pay at least $100 in federal income tax per year. Its analysis found that, among the 42% of American households that would face tax increases, the average increase would be $1,480.

That is indeed nearly $1,500. But, again, Scott has not endorsed these particulars. Gleckman said that “we don’t know how much minimum tax he’d have everyone pay, and we don’t know exactly who would be taxed and who would be exempt.”

Another analysis, from the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy think tank, tested a different hypothetical policy that would satisfy Scott’s proposal to have all Americans pay some income tax. Under that policy, the institute found that the poorest fifth of Americans would face an average tax hike of just over $1,000.

Garrett Watson, senior policy analyst at the right-leaning Tax Foundation think tank, said in an email: “A major part of the problem in the discussion is we are all extrapolating a tax proposal from one bullet point, where neither critics nor the advocate of the proposal agree on what the bullet point is saying or what the details would be.”

Scott’s claim about what his plan says

On Wednesday morning, the day after another speech in which Biden had invoked the Tax Policy Center’s numbers, Scott appeared on Fox and claimed that the President was “confused.”

The senator correctly said that the roughly $1,500 figure Biden invoked cannot be found in his plan. But Scott also said this: “You go to, there’s nothing that the President said that’s in there. What I’ve said is, let’s get people back to work so they have skin in the game. I mean, think about it: We want people to work in this country.”

At another point in the interview, Scott was asked if he is saying someone making $30,000 should pay even $30 in taxes to have “skin in the game.” He responded, “I think you get people back to work. What I’ve said basically is, you know, look: If they’re able-bodied, get back to work. Guess what? When you work, you pay payroll taxes. You buy things, you pay sales tax. Maybe you buy a house, you pay property taxes.”

Facts First: Scott was incorrectly describing what his plan says. The item on does not say that Scott’s proposal for everyone to have “skin in the game” is limited to jobless able-bodied people; in fact, the item doesn’t mention getting people back to work at all. It also says nothing about payroll taxes, sales taxes and property taxes. Again, the item simply calls for all Americans to pay some income tax — making no exception for the tens of millions of people who are already working but don’t pay federal income tax. (Gleckman said about 45 million households include such a person.) This, once more, is what Scott’s item says in full: “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”

Lewis, the senator’s spokesperson, pointed CNN to an opinion article Scott published in April — more than a month and a half after he had released the full plan — in which he promised that his “skin in the game” proposal “wouldn’t change anything” for either working-class Americans or retirees and instead would target only two groups: 1) able-bodied, working-age people “who live off government handouts, even though they could be working,” and 2) “very wealthy people” who hire professionals to help them avoid “paying their fair share.”

Scott himself tweeted on Thursday: “I’ve been clear: if you’re working, I don’t want you to pay even $1 more in taxes.” And Lewis insisted in an email that “people who are working are paying income taxes.”

But, again, some working people are not paying income taxes, though many of them do pay other kinds of taxes. And Scott has not revised the unambiguous language in his original plan document, which does not exempt retirees or working people.

Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center said: “Scott has the plan he published, then he has tweets and op-eds where he says he didn’t say what the plan says in plain English.”

Scott’s insistence that he hasn’t called for a tax increase

Speaking of plain English: Scott and his team continue to deny even that he has proposed any tax increase.

The senator tweeted Thursday, “I’m about getting folks back to work & I’ll never support higher taxes.” In rejecting the Tax Policy Center’s calculations, spokesperson Lewis said in his email that Scott hasn’t called for “any tax increases of any kind.”

Facts First: These claims are just false. Scott’s plan clearly proposed a tax increase in calling for “all Americans” to pay some income tax. And the senator clearly proposed a tax increase even in the opinion article in which he said that his proposal was targeted only at wealthy people who are gaming the system and able-bodied, working-age people who are living off of government benefits.

Even if Scott were calling only for currently jobless, benefits-receiving, able-bodied people to pay more in taxes, that is still support for higher taxes. And forcing “all Americans” to pay some income tax, as his plan still says he wants, is very obviously support for higher taxes.

It’s not only Democrats who have interpreted Scott’s plan as a call for a broad tax increase. When McConnell was asked about Scott’s plan in March, he said that if Republicans retake the Senate in the midterm elections, “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people.”

Gleckman said this week: “All I know is the plain meaning of the words in (Scott’s) Rescue America Plan is that he would impose income taxes on people who do not now pay income taxes. That is the very definition of a tax increase.”

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