Monday, June 18, 2018

PolitiFact Wisconsin: The Future is Now!

A May 2, 2018 fact check from PolitiFact Wisconsin uses projected numbers from the 2018-2019 budget year to assess a claim that Wisconsinites are now paying twice as much for debt service on road work as they were paying in 2010-2011 before Republican Scott Walker took over as Wisconsin's governor.


Democratic candidate for governor Kelda Helen Roys and her interviewer used a 22-23 percent figure to represent current spending on road work debt service in Wisconsin.

PolitiFact Wisconsin gave both a pass on their fudging of the facts, but lowered Roys' rating from "True" down to "Mostly True" because the numbers used were mere estimates:
The figure is projected to reach 20.9 percent during the second year of the current two-year state budget Walker signed, which is nearly doubling.

With the caveat that the figure for the current budget is an estimate, we rate Roys’ statement Mostly True.
We think that reasoning would work better as a fact check of Roys' claim if the estimated number represented what Wisconsin is paying now for debt service on its road work. Unless PolitiFact Wisconsin is saying the future is now, the estimate for budget year 2017-2018 would better fit the bill.

PolitiFact Wisconsin reported the 2017-2018 estimate as 20 percent but used the higher figure for the following budget year to judge Roys' accuracy.

And that was just one of three ways PolitiFact Wisconsin massaged the Democrat's statement into a closer semblance of the truth.

What is "Just Basic Road Repair and Maintenance"?

Roys' claimed the debt service was "for just basic road repair and maintenance," which would apparently exclude new construction. PolitiFact tested her claim using the numbers for the transportation-related share of the budget (bold emphasis added):
In analyzing 2017-’19 two-year state budget enacted by Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature, the bureau provided figures on the total of all transportation debt service as a percentage of gross transportation fund revenue -- in other words, what portion of transportation revenue for road work would be going to paying off debt.
PolitiFact's other truth-massage credited Roys with making clear that the debt service increase she spoke of was the debt service amount as a percentage of total spending on roads. Aside from the fact Roys talked about "just basic road repair and maintenance," she offered listeners no clue that she used the same measure PolitiFact Wisconsin used to fact check her claim.

The clue that likely drove PolitiFact to check the debt service as a percentage of road work expenses came from WisconsinEye senior producer Steve Walters, who conducted the interview of Roys. Walter referred no less than twice to a "22 to 23 percent" figure for debt service during the interview.

Since that number came from Walters, PolitiFact Wisconsin apparently felt no need to fact check its accuracy.

Does Some Road Construction Go Beyond 'Basic'?

We think the phrase "basic road repair and maintenance" may leave some members of the audience with the impression that more involved road work such as replacing bridges would balloon the cost of debt service even higher than described.

We found a page run by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation describing its road projects. Here's the description of one costing $9.6 million:
Description of work: The project consists of a full reconstruction of WIS 55 (Delanglade Street) from I-41 to Lawe Street in the city of Kaukauna. Improvements will include roundabouts at the intersections of I-41 ramps, Maloney/Gertrude, and County OO. New traffic signals will be installed at County J/WIS 55/WIS 96, and bike/pedestrian accommodations will be added throughout the project limits along WIS 55. Other work includes storm sewer, sanitary sewer, water main, sidewalks, retaining walls, street lighting, and incidentals.
It appears to us that PolitiFact Wisconsin simply assumed that all the described work rightly fits under Roys' description.

We're skeptical that such assumptions hold a rightful place among the best practices for fact checkers.

Summary


If we assume that Roys was talking about all expenses attached to road work, and also assume she was talking about the increase in the estimated dollar amount of debt service in raw dollars, her estimate is off by only about 7 percent. In that case, PolitiFact Wisconsin did not really need to use future estimates to justify Roys' statement about how much Wisconsin is spending now. It could have just used the measure Roys' described and rated that against the estimate for this year's spending.

But a fact checker could easily have justified asking Roys to define what she meant by "basic road repair and maintenance" and then using that definition to grade her accuracy. A better fact check would likely result.

We wonder if Roys would need to join the Republican Party to make that happen.

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