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Published June 19 2012

Peering behind punches in North Dakota Senate race

FARGO – With the general election campaign in full swing, new ads in the U.S. Senate race are inundating North Dakotans this month through TV and the Internet.

National Republicans and Democrats have targeted North Dakota’s Senate race because the outcome could determine which party holds power in the Senate next year.

Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has released two campaign ads in the last eight days: one an attack on her opponent, and the other a rebuttal to national Republicans’ own assault.

The campaign arm of the conservative super PAC American Crossroads is hammering Heitkamp again for her support of the 2010 health care reform law.

Meanwhile, national Democrats are out with another attack of their own against the Republican candidate, Rep. Rick Berg.

Several of the claims made in these ads have already been addressed in previous installments of the “Forum Fact-check.”

Here’s a breakdown of each ad and the facts behind their new claims:

Heitkamp: ‘Minimum Wage’

While North Dakotans were deciding the contested GOP primary in the U.S. Senate race June 12, Heitkamp unveiled an online ad against Berg.

Heitkamp’s ad dramatizes a video shot by North Dakota Democrats in May at a GOP campaign event, in which Berg appears unable to answer a question about North Dakota’s minimum wage.

Unidentified girl to Berg: “What is the minimum wage right now at North Dakota?”

Berg: “Hmmm.”

Ad: “Need a lifeline?”

Berg to someone in another room: “Do you know what the minimum wage is in North Dakota now?”

Unidentified person in the other room: “Same as federal.”

Berg: “Do you know what that is?”

Ad: “Answer: $7.25”

Heitkamp spokesman Brandon Lorenz said the Democratic-NPL Party is responsible for the home video-style footage captured at the GOP event.

The Democrats quickly released the video in an attempt to show how disconnected Berg might be from his constituents.

Berg’s campaign spokesman Chris Van Guilder accused Heitkamp of using “an undercover political operative (and) ‘gotcha’ games” in crafting the attack ad.

“What you also won’t see in this clipped video is that Rick knew the questioned wage within cents of its actual amount,” Van Guilder said, as evidenced by the full video posted online by North Dakota Democrats.

“He explained that for some professions the wage would be different, and then went to double check in order to give the ‘student’ a thoroughly accurate answer,” Van Guilder added.

Lorenz said “the footage speaks for itself.”

Undated Valley News Live broadcast: “Berg voted against raising the minimum wage.”

According to North Dakota legislative records, Berg joined a nearly unanimous vote by House members who, in 2007, approved raising the minimum wage to the current legal rate.

Berg served as a Fargo legislator for 25 years before he was elected to Congress in 2010.

In three other known instances – in 1999, 2005 and 2007 – Berg did vote against other proposals to raise the minimum wage.

In each of those cases, he voted with as much as a 2-to-1 majority in shooting down the proposals, the legislative record shows.

Ed Schultz in undated MSNBC broadcast: “Berg repeatedly voted to raise the salary of state lawmakers.”

On several occasions between 1997 and 2009, North Dakota legislators approved increases to their sources of compensation.

Legislative records show Berg was split in his support for the various proposals but generally voted with the majority of lawmakers in approving them.

North Dakota lawmakers are paid for each day during the legislative session, plus a monthly salary, and each day they serve for interim work. They also receive a monthly stipend for lodging in Bismarck.

Prior to 1997, state legislators went 16 years without giving themselves a pay raise, The Forum reported then. Legislators’ daily pay had been $90.

That year, Berg voted against increasing daily and monthly salaries but in favor of increases to legislators’ housing stipends, legislative records show.

Berg supported measures in 1999 and 2001 to raise the daily compensation lawmakers received for their interim duties.

He opposed increases to daily pay again in 2001 but supported them in a controversial, but failed, proposal that went before the Legislature in 2005.

Then the House majority leader, Berg was at the center of a controversy in which members unknowingly voted to raise their own pay.

The House Appropriations Committee had passed an amendment to a Senate bill that called for lawmakers’ daily pay to increase from $125 to $135. The amended measure passed the committee unanimously, but word about the provision was apparently not relayed to the House floor.

House members approved the amended bill along with a slew of other bills as part of their consent calendar, when numerous bills are acted on with one motion and no discussion.

According to a report by The Forum then, when lawmakers confronted Berg with their frustrations, Berg accepted responsibility and said “it didn’t occur to me this would be a concern.”

The House version of the full bill – including the increased pay for state lawmakers – passed the chamber two days later by a 70-20 vote. Berg supported it. However, a conference committee of House and Senate members rejected the House amendments, and the final bill passed both chambers without any pay increase for lawmakers. Berg also supported the final bill.

In 2005, Berg supported raising lawmakers’ housing allowance.

In 2007 and again in 2009, North Dakota lawmakers also approved increases to their daily pay and monthly salary. Berg supported those changes.

Meanwhile, for Heitkamp’s part: As attorney general, she drew fire in 1994 for authorizing pay increases for her office, which amounted to a 32 percent salary hike for some assistant attorneys general when most other state employees received only a 3 percent raise. Her own salary – which was determined by the Legislature – was not affected.

Crossroads GPS: ‘Change’

Crossroads GPS says it paid $132,000 for its latest ad buy, which will run for at least another week in North Dakota. The ad is the second from the conservative group, which criticizes Heitkamp’s support for health care reform.

Narrator: “Heidi Heitkamp supports Obamacare and predicted …”

Heitkamp, in 2010 video: “This bill will change the face of health care.”

The ad pulls video from an April 2010 rally, in which Heitkamp was the keynote speaker heralding passage of the health care reform law. Heitkamp called the bill “a legacy vote” and urged supporters of the law to “be vigilant” against critics who would seek to repeal it.

Two years later, though, Heitkamp said this spring – for the first time publicly – that she’s “often said that it’s not a perfect law.”

Narrator: “She’s right. Obamacare cuts Medicare spending by $500 billion …”

A March 2011 report from the CBO said health care reform would reduce federal spending to the entitlement program by $492 billion by 2019.

North Dakota Democrats – including Heitkamp’s campaign – say the attack is misleading since Berg himself supported similar cuts to Medicare.

In 2011, Berg voted in favor of the budget proposal offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Ryan’s plan called for an overhaul of the Medicare program that included

$450 billion in cuts. That budget was never enacted.

Narrator: “… gives unelected bureaucrats the power to restrict seniors’ care …”

The 2010 health care law created an Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, as a means to control costs in the Medicare program. The 15-member board is set to take effect in 2014 and make annual recommendations to Congress about how to improve quality of care for Medicare recipients.

The board is “prohibited from recommending changes that would ration care, increase costs for beneficiaries, reduce benefits, or change eligibility,” according to healthcare.gov.

Berg has lobbied for repeal of the IPAB, which the House approved eliminating this spring. The Senate has not yet voted on whether to repeal the IPAB.

Narrator: “… and now, costs and premiums are likely to go up.”

While health care reform was working its way through Congress in 2009 and 2010, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jonathan Gruber – a chief architect of the 2010 law – was among the proponents who claimed the legislation would “for sure” reduce the cost of health insurance.

But Gruber said this year that the health reform law could increase premiums by as much as 30 percent, according to a March report in Forbes magazine.

Gruber said he drew that conclusion from analyzing the health care markets in Wisconsin in August 2011, in Minnesota in November 2011 and in Colorado in January 2012.

Heitkamp: ‘12 years’

Heitkamp released her latest ad on Monday in direct response to the Crossroads ad and Republicans’ repeated attacks over health care reform.

The ad makes Heitkamp among the first Democrats nationwide to address the controversial law in a Senate campaign ad.

Heitkamp: “I’m Heidi Heitkamp, and 12 years ago, I beat breast cancer.”

Heitkamp’s battle with breast cancer was chronicled heavily in the latter months of the 2000 gubernatorial election, in which Heitkamp lost to Republican John Hoeven.

After a mastectomy and several rounds of successful chemotherapy and radiation treatments, tests found Heitkamp was cancer-free by July 2001.

Heitkamp: “…When you live through that, political attack ads seem silly.”

Heitkamp told The Forum in December 2011: “I don’t run against anyone. I run for the job.”

On the campaign trail, Heitkamp also often pledges to “put politics aside.”

However, since earlier this year, Heitkamp’s campaign rhetoric has repeatedly included direct and indirect assaults on her opponent, Rick Berg.

Berg’s campaign has also attacked Heitkamp, specifically for her support of health care reform and her ties to national Democrats.

Unlike Heitkamp, though, Berg’s attacks have not yet appeared in his campaign’s own ads. The campaigns’ YouTube pages show Heitkamp has released one attack ad so far – hitting Berg on the minimum wage – while Berg’s ads have focused on his background and record and have not mentioned Heitkamp.

Heitkamp: “I would never vote to take away a senior’s health care or limit anyone’s care. There’s good and bad in the health care law and it needs to be fixed …”

Studies from the Congressional Budget Office and other agencies have shown the 2010 law Heitkamp once said she fully supported will reduce Medicare spending by $492 billion by 2019 and could potentially increase individuals’ cost of health care.

In March 2012, Heitkamp first publicly expressed her mixed support for the law and her concerns about the individual mandate and burdensome regulations on businesses.

Heitkamp: “… but Rick Berg voted to go back – to letting insurance companies deny coverage to kids or for pre-existing conditions. I approve this message because I don’t ever want to go back to those days.”

After Berg took office in the U.S. House in 2011, one of his first votes was in favor of repealing the entire 2010 health care law. While the repeal effort passed the House, it failed in the Senate.

House Republicans – including Berg – have since sought to repeal the law piecemeal.

A successful example of that came in the repeal of tax requirements the law placed on businesses.

DSCC: ‘Spelled’

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released its latest ad on Tuesday, presenting another assault on Berg’s voting record in both the North Dakota Legislature and the U.S. House.

The DSCC has purchased $86,000 of air time to run the TV ad through July 2, Roll Call reported.

The ad reiterates several arguments the DSCC made in its first ad, released in late April and assessed in a Forum Fact-check then.

Almost all of the claims deal with Berg’s support for the 2012 and 2013 budget proposals by Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee chairman.

Although they passed the House – with Berg’s support – neither of Ryan’s proposals have garnered enough support to become law.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541

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