FROM SACRAMENTO — We instinctively grant latitude to advertisers, whether they're peddling politicians, dog food or miracle paring knives. But we do expect that an ad will not flat-out lie.
Sadly, our expectations often fall short when ambitious politicians are pitching themselves.
Neither major party has a lock on truthfulness. I've written about false advertising by Republicans and Democrats alike for years.
Now, in the very first series of radio ads in the 2010 gubernatorial race, comes blatant baloney from billionaire political novice Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of EBay who is running for the Republican nomination.
"Did you know," Whitman asks radio listeners, "that in the last 10 years, state spending has gone up 80%?"
Well, no, I did not know that. So I did some checking.
"They're completely wrong when they say that," replied state Finance Director Mike Genest, a conservative former budget consultant for Senate Republicans.
It doesn't take much digging to learn that general fund spending "in the last 10 years" has risen just 27%, according to finance department data. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, spending actually has decreased by 16.6%.
The Whitman camp got its 80% figure -- it's really 78%, but close enough -- by counting a different 10 years than "the last 10." It backed up a couple of years and counted the period between fiscal 1998-99 and 2007-08, ending with the highest general fund spending in history, $103 billion.
Since then, the budget has been slashed to $84.6 billion for the current fiscal year.
Logic tells us that Whitman strategists used the earlier 10-year period because the 80% figure has a nice dramatic ring.
But campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds insists it was because 2007-08 was the last budget year for which the books have been officially closed. Those numbers are permanent and solid, he says. "Most Californians would agree that's a fair and accurate measure."
No, I suspect most people really would prefer that the gubernatorial candidate be straight-up about which years she is measuring. If it's not "the last 10 years," don't claim that it is.
Even for the period that Whitman minions measured, when inflation and population growth are factored in, spending climbed 16.5% -- not nearly as dramatic as her reported 80%.
Actually, the Whitman team could have generated an even more eye-catching number by using a base fiscal year of 1997-98, which seems the better way to do it. That would measure 10 full years of spending growth, rather than the nine calculated by Whitman. . And it would show an increase of 95%.
Using Whitman's nine-year yardstick, spending has risen only 8.4% in "the last 10," not 27%.
But this has ventured too deeply into thick weeds. Let's move on to another bit of baloney in the Whitman ad that is running all over the state.
"These days," the candidate intones, "Sacramento does the same old thing over and over. Their only solution is to raise taxes and spend more money."
I've already showed that they're spending less money, not more.
In fact, over the current and last fiscal years, projected spending -- the amount that would have been paid out without changes in laws -- has been whacked by $31 billion. So their "only solution" is not to tax and spend.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature did raise taxes by $12.5 billion last February.
But contrary to Whitman's ad -- and a widely held myth -- it was the first major state tax increase since the candidate's campaign chairman, Pete Wilson, raised taxes as governor in 1991. The Wilson tax hike was temporary, as is the current one.
Before 1991, you've got to go way back to 1967, Ronald Reagan's first year as governor, to find another major state tax increase -- not counting the millionaire income, tobacco and gas tax hikes that voters have imposed through ballot measures.
More often, the state has cut taxes -- the vehicle license fee, business loopholes, income taxes through dependent credits.
Here is some more data from the state finance department that refutes the "spend more" charge: Under Schwarzenegger, the average annual growth in general fund spending has been only 1.3% -- compared to 6.3% for Gray Davis, 4.6% for Wilson, 8% for George Deukmejian, 12.7% for Jerry Brown, 13.6% for Reagan and 11.7% for Pat Brown.
The big spending, for whatever reason, was back in the 1960s and '70s. And the state's still trying, not very successfully, to survive off those investments.
The radio ad fibs may seem like a small thing, but it's in the public's interest to keep the campaign dialogue as honest as possible.
It's also in the candidates' interest because it goes to their credibility.
I doubt Whitman ran any numbers herself. She probably just read what some overheated campaign staffer handed her.
But if the candidate for governor had been paying any attention to state government, she should have known that the ad was unbefitting bunk.
Given Sacramento's dire condition, the facts are enough condemnation. Candidates don't need to embellish, let alone prevaricate. It makes them look like just another politician.