Fact Check: Does Hagan want a carbon tax?

An industry-funded nonprofit says U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan favors imposing a "carbon tax" on fuel sources like gas and coal. But the group doesn't have a carbon-emitting gun to back up their claim.

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AEA Carbon Tax Commercial
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — If only the ad had stopped on its first line.

"We all know politicians don't always tell the truth," begins a commercial from the American Energy Alliance that has been airing in North Carolina. 


But this being an attack ad, rather than sticking with a statement of the obvious, it goes on to criticize U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan for supporting a carbon tax. 

"Hagan's campaign claims she opposes a carbon tax, but she's on record supporting it, worked to make it a priority, even though it could cost the average family more than $2,000 a year, increase gas prices and destroy thousands of North Carolina jobs," the ad says. 

Soon after that ad began airing, campaign staffers for state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is the Republican running against Hagan this year, took up the same accusation. 

"Hagan's sudden claim that she has never supported a carbon tax is just another attempt to mislead voters by playing both sides of an issue," said Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin.

The $230,000 ad buy is due to end its two-week run in North Carolina on Wednesday. For her part, a spokeswoman for Hagan denies she supports such a tax, and the Hagan campaign issued a lengthy review of the ad disputing many of its points. 

What exactly is a carbon tax? Does Hagan support one? 

About AEA: The American Energy Alliance bills itself as "a not-for-profit organization that engages in grassroots public policy advocacy and debate concerning energy and environmental policies."
It is a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt social welfare group that may be involved in some kinds of political-style ads but does not have to disclose its donors. News reports have linked the alliance to the network of conservative special interest groups funded by Charles and David Koch and their allies. 
Carbon tax: Although there are many different proposals that would constitute a "carbon tax," they all aim to impose a price on using traditional fuels like coal, oil and gas commensurate with the pollution they cause. The idea is that, by adding costs, the government either encourages companies to pollute less or collects money to help offset that pollution. Economists have said that the approach likely would reduce carbon emissions, although not without affecting the economy. 

Burning less fossil fuel, the logic goes, would help curb global climate change. 

The backup: The American Energy Alliance provided a fact sheet backing up their ad that links to several sources. 

"Our goal is to educate people about the damages of a carbon tax and to hold Senator Hagan accountable for supporting a policy that would be extremely painful for North Carolina families – especially the poor, elderly and those on fixed incomes," Chris Warren, a spokesman for the alliance, said in an email.

The alliance's claims hinge on two key pieces of information. 

First, the group points to a 2010 letter signed by Hagan and 11 other freshmen senators calling for action on energy policy. 

"(W)e believe the scale of this challenge dictates the need for a comprehensive solution that includes making polluters pay through a price on greenhouse gas emissions," said part of the letter the alliance highlights.

Warren argues, "The 'price' Hagan called for is a tax that would destroy jobs and cause energy bills to skyrocket."

This letter has been used in other campaign-style ads and has been vetted by both PolitiFact and FactCheck.org

The words "carbon tax" do not appear in the letter, and it's unclear what policy the senators are suggesting. As PolitiFact wrote in a February review of an ad in Alaska's Senate race, "A carbon tax could be one way to levy 'a price on greenhouse gas emissions.' Another way, though, would be through a cap-and-trade program."

Second, the group points to a 2013 vote Hagan cast against an amendment that would have required the Senate to gather a 60-vote super-majority if a bill were eventually drafted to impose a carbon tax of some sort. This was not a vote on the tax itself, but rather setting up the rules for future debates. 

While it is certainly true that someone who hoped to defeat a carbon tax under any circumstance might like to see that procedural rule pass, it's equally true that it was not a vote on the tax itself. 

Similar statements: At the same time this ad began to run, Tillis' campaign also began criticizing Hagan's record on the carbon tax. Third-party groups like the alliance are not allowed to directly coordinate their spending with campaigns, but it is perfectly legal for them to pile on one another's message. Tillis' campaign points to much of the same material that the Alliance cites. 

"When Hagan had the chance to join a bipartisan effort to block a carbon tax from ever being implemented, she instead sided with her liberal, special-interest allies," Keylin said of the 2013 amendment vote. 

What's missing: What neither the Tillis campaign or the alliance have been able to come up with is a specific bill that Hagan has signed on to as a co-sponsor or voted in favor of that would impose a carbon tax. In fact, she appeared to pass on a couple of such opportunities. 
The most likely vehicle for Hagan to take such action would be a bill put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont. That measure has not moved, and Hagan is not a co-sponsor.
On another amendment put forward by Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Hagan voted against setting up a procedure for how revenue from a carbon tax would be handled. Other conservative groups have pointed to votes in favor of that amendment as supporting a carbon tax, so it follows that Hagan's vote against it indicates some sort of opposition. That resolution was nonbinding, so its unclear whether a vote for or against it was really taking much of a stand either way. 

It is fair to point out that when she ran for office in 2008, Hagan verbally support a bill that would institute a "cap and trade" system under which industry would have carbon emissions limited and be able to trade in credits companies earn for reducing such emissions. However, there does not appear to have been a vote on cap-and-trade since Hagan has been serving. 

About those numbers: The ad cites a few facts and figures about the damage the alliance believes a carbon tax would do to the economy. Those numbers come from a report by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Manufacturers

Those reports make assumptions about what a carbon tax would do and the costs it would impose. Since Hagan has not signed on to any particular bill or indicated her support for a specific set of carbon tax criteria, the ad is ascribing specific impacts based on assumptions about what the senator's position might be.

Where they stand: Given all this back and forth, we asked the Hagan and Tillis campaigns where they stand on the issue of controlling carbon emissions. 

"There's a number of ideas that Kay supports, including a Clean Energy Standard similar to the one she supported in North Carolina that has already helped reduce pollution," Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said in an email. "She has introduced legislation to encourage the development of lithium for batteries that would be used in things like electric cars and other smart-grid technologies. She supported extension of an advanced manufacturing tax credit that included incentive for clean energy manufacturing – an area where North Carolina is well-positioned to grow jobs. And she successfully fought to save a military advanced biofuels program from elimination."

Keylin said Tillis "would never support a carbon tax, cap and trade or any other energy tax that would destroy jobs and hurt our economy. Congress' focus needs to be on getting our economy back on track, not tanking it with new taxes and regulations." 

Such carbon controls are aimed at abating climate change, and in primary debates, Tillis said he does not believe climate change is caused by people, and his position against federal carbon regulations is consistent with that stance. 
Red light: Stop right there. The statement in question is demonstrably false or unfounded. Even if some of the numbers or other facts cited are correct, the overall conclusion does not hold u
The Call: Hagan certainly seems to have been sympathetic towards arguments for a cap-and-trade system during her 2008 campaign. However, a cap-and-trade arrangement isn't exactly the same thing as a "carbon tax," although it is certainly in the ballpark. Also, there's certainly a difference over policy between Hagan and Tillis that voters should examine. 

However, on the merits of this particular carbon tax ad, it is a stretch to say Hagan "worked to make it a priority," since the work in question was a letter that didn't specifically mention carbon taxes at all. While there have been votes that have skirted the carbon tax issue since she's been in office, none of those put her squarely on the record for or against such a measure. 

The ad also uses some numbers about the economic impact of a carbon tax policy. Using those numbers gives viewers the impression that the alliance is analyzing a particular bill that Hagan has voted for or supported. Since there is no such bill, that is not the case and the use of those numbers is somewhat misleading. 

If our fact checking scale had something between a yellow light, which indicates an ad has problems, and a red light, which warns of outright misleading statements, we would probably take that middle ground. There are a few glimmers of truth in the alliance's ad. However, the group cannot muster enough evidence to support its case, and ties on attack ads go to the target. We give this spot a red light.


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