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PolitiFact: Democrats’ ad on Handel office budgets misleads

The race in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District tests whether Democrats can turn anger toward President Donald Trump into votes, and whether Republicans can transcend that anger in a district that has long been safe GOP territory.

With a little over a month before the June 20 special election, the Democratic ad campaign went on the attack. Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the electoral arm of House Democrats, and the campaign to elect Jon Ossoff ran commercials targeting Republican Karen Handel.

The DCCC ad cast Handel as a politician who enjoyed the comforts of office.

“Georgia experienced the worst budget crisis since the Great Depression,” the ad said. “For years, we saw cuts to education, cuts to law enforcement, and rising college tuition. Yet Secretary of State Karen Handel’s office budget increased a whopping 42 percent.”

Is that true?

The answer depends on how you define “office budget.”

State budget experts at the Georgia State University Fiscal Research Center and the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute helped us work through the official budget documents. There was general agreement that the first budget Handel helped shape was in early 2007. She stepped down as secretary of state in December 2009, so the last budgets she worked under fell in 2009 and 2010. We compared both to 2007.

We found the administrative cost of running the secretary of state’s office rose by nearly 39 percent from 2007 to 2009, or 47 percent from 2007 to 2010 — which is close but not quite what the ad claimed.

However, the cost of the department overall actually fell by about 8 percent from 2007 to 2009, or 10 percent from 2007 to 2010.

Here are the numbers:

Office administration: $4,882,454 in 2007, $6,782,167 in 2009, a 38.0 percent increase; in 2010, $7,167,144, an increase from 2007 of 46.8 percent.

Total costs: $30,762,868 in 2007, $28,381,868 in 2009, a 7.7 percent decrease; in 2010, $27,730,509, a decrease from 2007 of 9.9 percent.

The key here is the distinction of administration costs versus the budget of the entire department.

Evan Lukaske, DCCC spokesman, told us his group pulled the 42 percent figure from a 2010 Associated Press article, which said, “During her three years as secretary of state, the office’s administration budget jumped by about 42 percent, according to state records.”

More recently, a local television station confirmed that figure. (The slight difference in numbers stems from the more conservative budget assumptions we used following the guidance of budget experts.)

There’s an important backstory to the spending increase that puts the number in a different light.

Between 2008 and 2009, there was a reshuffling of activities within the secretary of state’s office. It had investigators spread across three separate programs. Handel consolidated them.

Handel spokeswoman Kate Constantini said the easiest way to do that was to add that work to an existing line in the budget.

“That line item was part of the front office budget, which necessarily showed an increase, but was the result of moving personnel that were accounted for in other parts of the budget,” Constantini said.

The state budget brief for 2008-09 backs up Handel’s account. The rise in the administrative budget was offset by decreases in certain activities of other divisions within the department.

As such, the spending increases are largely only on paper. In reality, money was shuffled around.

Our ruling

Most of the increase in the secretary of state office’s budget came from moving around work — and the money to pay for it — inside the department. The rise in the administrative budget was offset by cuts elsewhere.

The ad’s statement leaves out critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate the claim Mostly False.

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