By Lori Robertson
Like many Democrats, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes says he wants to cut “middle-class” taxes and make sure the wealthy “pay their fair share.” But an ad from his opponent, Sen. Ron Johnson, in the race for U.S. Senate falsely tells the state’s voters that Barnes wants to “double your income taxes.”
The Johnson campaign told us the reference was to remarks Barnes made in 2019 when he said: “We need to make sure that everyone — especially the powerful and privileged — pay their fair share in taxes. As we all know, the top federal tax rate on the wealthiest was 70% just a few decades ago.” But Barnes did not explicitly advocate reinstating such a rate. And even if he had, raising the top marginal rate — which now is 37% for individual taxable income above $539,900 — wouldn’t amount to doubling “your income taxes” for the vast majority of the public.
A spokesperson for the Barnes campaign told us he cited the past high top rate “to make his point that marginal tax increases on the wealthy would not crash the economy. He was not supporting and does not support a 70% top income tax rate.”
The TV ad uses video from one of Barnes’ ads showing the Democratic nominee hitting baseballs in a park. Johnson’s voiceover calls that TV spot “cutesy” and then rattles off a laundry list of what he calls Barnes’ “too extreme” positions, misleadingly describing most of them. The ad began airing Sept. 6.
Johnson, a Republican, has held the Wisconsin Senate seat since 2011. The Cook Political Report says the race is a toss-up.
Barnes on Taxes
Barnes’ website is short on specifics, but clearly says he wants to lower taxes for what he calls the “middle class” and raise taxes on the “wealthiest.”
In a video stating his priorities for taxes, Barnes says: “I’ll cut middle-class taxes, and I’ll pay for it by ensuring the wealthiest among us pay their fair share. I’ll cut taxes on families and expand the child tax credit to give parents some breathing room.”
That sounds like the opposite of wanting to “double your income taxes.” When we asked the Johnson campaign about the claim, it pointed to Barnes’ response for the Working Families Party to the president’s State of the Union address in 2019. But the claim is relying on a distortion of Barnes’ remarks.
The Working Families Party, which supports Barnes’ candidacy, is a self-described “multiracial party that fights for workers over bosses and people over the powerful.”
In his 2019 speech, Barnes listed several policy goals on various topics, ending with this one: “We need to make sure that everyone — especially the powerful and privileged — pay their fair share in taxes. As we all know, the top federal tax rate on the wealthiest was 70% just a few decades ago.”
The Johnson campaign points out that he followed that statement with this: “And if the success of 2018 gave us reason to hope that this path is possible, the next two years will give us an opportunity to realize that hope.” But it’s not clear that Barnes was saying a 70% top tax rate is possible — as opposed to saying that making the wealthy pay a “fair share,” whatever that might mean, is doable, along with meeting all the other Democratic goals he had outlined in that speech.
As we said, the Barnes campaign said he was not — and is not — advocating a 70% top marginal rate.
Barnes’ reference in 2019 came at a time when other Democrats were drawing attention to the fact that the top marginal rate used to be that high, or higher. From 1936 to 1980, it was 70% or more — as high as 94% in the mid-1940s, as this chart from the Tax Policy Center shows.
There were a lot more tax brackets back in those days. In 1980, the top 70% rate applied to individual taxable income above $108,300, which would be about $400,000 in today’s dollars. The Tax Foundation has said those high rates led to more business income being taxed in the corporate tax system, and after 1980, much of that business income came back into the individual tax system.
As for Barnes’ tax plan, his spokesperson said he opposes the Republican 2017 tax law, enacted under then-President Donald Trump, and in particular wants to change a tax cut Johnson pushed for in that law giving a break to most business owners, who pay individual income tax on their business earnings. (Several reports have found that while the tax cut broadly benefited these so-called pass-through businesses, the bulk of the tax savings, predictably, flowed to those earning the most money, as our fact-checking colleagues at PolitiFact.com have explained.)
Barnes supports a minimum income tax on people whose wealth is worth more than $100 million. Under such a plan — proposed by President Joe Biden earlier this year — about 700 billionaires, according to the White House’s estimate, would pay at least 20% in taxes on income and capital gains, even on unsold assets. Barnes also has said he wants to expand the child tax credit and earned income tax credit.
Johnson’s TV ad includes several other claims about Barnes’ supposed positions, but frames most of them in misleading ways or leaves out context.
Police funding. The ad says Barnes “supports the defund police movement.” Barnes calls that a “lie” in a TV ad of his own.
Interestingly, both campaigns cited the same Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article as one piece of evidence to support their arguments. The Johnson camp highlights a line about five groups who support defunding the police endorsing Barnes, while the Barnes camp points to Barnes’ “definitive” statement that he doesn’t support defunding the police.
The Journal Sentinel article said that “Barnes is now distancing himself from two unpopular, far-left political movements — defunding police and abolishing ICE — despite support from groups backing these efforts and past social media activity referencing these causes.”
The ad doesn’t explain what it means by “defund police.” As we’ve said before, there’s no one definition. Some critics advocate completely defunding police and replacing police departments with new community safety organizations, while others talk about reallocating some funding to social service agencies, such as those equipped to deal with mental health problems.
Barnes has talked about reallocation. In a June 2020 interview with PBS Wisconsin — less than two months after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparking protests against police brutality across the country — Barnes spoke repeatedly about shifting some resources from police departments to other city services and programs to prevent crime.
He was asked directly: “Do you agree that police budgets should be maybe completely done away with, or, or defunded?” Barnes responded: “Not completely done away with.”
He went on to say:
Barnes, June 2020 interview, PBS Wisconsin: We need to invest more in neighborhood services and programming for our residents, for our communities on the front end. Where will that money come from? Well, it can come from over-bloated budgets in police departments, you know? …
The more money we invest on the front end, because we spend over a billion dollars to put people in prison. The more money we invest in opportunity for people, the less money we have to spend on prisons. The same way the more money we invest in communities, the more opportunity we offer to residents in all parts of our state, the less money we’ll have to spend on police work.
And this isn’t about, look, this isn’t about, you know, beating up on police officers. This is about recognizing the moment that we’re in and recognizing the needs that exist. And it’s also about expecting a high quality of performance from the people who are sworn to protect and serve. And if we offer more opportunities for people in communities, that in turn makes their job that much easier.
And it’s also unrealistic to expect police officers to play the role of social worker, to play the role of mental health professional. In so many instances, they are called into those situations where their expertise does not offer them the opportunity to reasonably resolve that situation. And we see, we see things end up becoming much worse. So if we put more money into mental health services for people, for social services for people, to be able to respond to those instances, we will all be much better off and more safe.
In the interview Barnes also referred to “defunding” as a reallocation of some funding.
“And you know, defunding isn’t necessarily as aggressive as a lot of folks paint it. You know, school budgets get cut almost every year. The arts budgets get cut almost every year, you know, music programs, all these programs see budget cuts unfortunately. And it’s the result, that’s a part of the reason we are where we are because our youth don’t have the outlets that they once had to express themselves,” he said. “And you know, every other budget that gets cut, it seems like, ‘Oh, well, we just had to cut this budget. We had to do what we had to do. We had to tighten up our purse strings. We had to tighten up our belt.’ But the minute you talk about reducing a police department’s budget, then it’s like all hell breaks loose and everybody, everybody acts like you are, you’re signaling Armageddon. But that’s not the case. It’s about reallocating funds in a way that actually promotes safety.”
In his TV ad, Barnes says: “I’ll make sure our police have the resources and training they need to keep our communities safe. And that our communities have the resources to stop crime before it happens,” which echoes other statements he has made in the campaign.
His campaign also pointed out that under Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Barnes, as lieutenant governor, law enforcement agencies and violence prevention efforts received tens of millions in federal COVID-19 relief funding made available to states to cover pandemic-related costs and recovery however they wished.
Viewers of the ad likely have different ideas about what “defund police” means, but Barnes’ current and past statements show he supports reallocating some funding for community or social service programs, not abolishing police departments.
Cash bail. Barnes supports eliminating cash bail, but doesn’t support releasing defendants in cases where there’s a threat of violence. But Johnson’s ad says without further explanation that Barnes “wrote a bill to release criminals without bail.”
In March 2016, Barnes, then a state representative, and other lawmakers introduced a bill to eliminate monetary bail as a condition for releasing someone charged with a crime before the trial or releasing someone convicted of a crime before sentencing. According to a summary of the bill by the state Legislative Reference Bureau, a court would be “required to release a defendant before trial unless it finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that there is a substantial risk that the defendant will not appear for trial or will cause serious bodily harm to a member of the community or intimidate a witness if he or she is released. Under the bill, the court may not use the nature, number, and gravity of the offenses as the sole sufficient reason for refusing to release the defendant.”
The bill didn’t pass. Barnes’ spokesperson told us the candidate still supports such a law, describing the issue as a matter of not allowing “violent criminals” to “be able to buy their way out of jail,” and adding that the bill he backed “mandated that if a judge deemed a defendant a violent threat to the community, the judge could not offer bail at all.”
Courts do not have to offer bail under the current state law. They can deny release to defendants accused of serious offenses, including first-degree homicide and sexual assault, and sexual assault of a child (see section 969.035). And the 2016 bill Barnes co-sponsored didn’t change that provision of the law. But a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the state’s bail policies said prosecutors often don’t pursue detention without bail because of the burden of proof required by the law. Instead, they favor setting bail at a high amount.
Other ads from outside groups, such as the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, also have focused on crime, misleadingly claiming that Barnes supports “defunding the police” and “eliminating cash bail” including for violent criminals. One TV ad from the Senate Leadership Fund, which is being distributed through Facebook, says no-cash-bail would apply “even with shootings” and “violent attacks on our police.” But that ignores the fact that Barnes’ position is to keep in custody those at “substantial risk” of causing “serious bodily harm” to others.
Health insurance. Barnes supports Medicare for All. The Johnson ad misleadingly frames this as Barnes wanting to “eliminate your employer-provided health insurance,” not mentioning that Barnes supports universal health coverage.
Under Medicare for All, such as the plan introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2019, private insurance, including work-based plans, would be eliminated, but everyone would still have insurance.
Barnes’ campaign told us he “supports building a path to Medicare for All,” but in the meantime supports the Affordable Care Act; expanding Medicaid in the 12 states, including Wisconsin, that haven’t adopted the expansion under the ACA; and allowing people to enroll in Medicare starting at age 50.
Another Johnson campaign ad claims that Medicare for All “would double your income taxes,” but that’s not exactly what the NBC News article cited on screen said.
The article is about a 2019 report from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that said doubling income and corporate taxes would be one way to pay for Medicare for All, among others, and that the plan could lower costs for families. NBC News said the authors “suggested that Medicare for All could reduce average total costs for lower- and middle-income families by eliminating more medical expenses than they would pay in taxes and requiring higher earners to pay a larger share of their tab.”
In 2020, CRFB analyzed a plan by Sanders on the various ways he would pay for Medicare for All, which included a 4% income-tax “premium” that exempted the first $29,000 for families of four and a 7.5% employer payroll tax that would “ultimately” be paid by employees, CRFB said. Of course, under such a health system, people would no longer pay for health insurance premiums or deductibles, as the federal government pays for “virtually the full cost of health care,” the analysis said.
Immigration. In a 2017 tweet, Barnes equated Trump’s proposed border wall to “xenophobia” and expressed support for a state bill to bar the Wisconsin Investment Board from investing in federal contractors building the barriers. And in his 2019 response to the State of the Union, he said: “We need an immigration system that treats all people with dignity and with respect, a system that says that no human being is illegal.”
The Johnson campaign points to those two comments as support for its claim that Barnes wants “open borders.” But neither comment supports that claim. Barnes didn’t say anyone should be able to come into the U.S. without restrictions.
His campaign told us he “does not favor open borders” and that he supports “comprehensive immigration reform.” On his website, Barnes says the U.S. “immigration system is broken.” He continues: “We can protect our borders and help those who are coming to the U.S. in search of better lives,” calling for a “path to citizenship” for people who live in the country now.
Finally, the Johnson ad says Barnes “supports taxpayer-funded benefits for illegals.” The campaign says that’s a reference to his support for driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition for immigrants, which Barnes mentioned in that 2019 SOTU response.
Barnes and Gov. Evers have continued to support such a proposal.
Those living in the U.S. illegally are ineligible for most federal benefits, with a few exceptions, such as emergency medical care, non-cash emergency disaster relief and public health measures for communicable diseases.
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