LEWISTON — The top political operative for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce continued to defend television ads that denounce the record of former Maine governor Angus King, an independent U.S. Senate candidate, during a whistle-stop at a Simones' Hot Dog Stand on Tuesday.
The ads charge King with being "the king of spending."
Rob Engstrom, the U.S. Chamber's national political director, appearing with Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, said the chamber would continue to run the advertisements in Maine and that they were factually accurate.
The ads insist King left the state with a nearly $1 billion budget deficit in 2003.
King has called the $400,000 ad campaign "bunk" and has refuted the figures, noting the Maine State Constitution requires a balanced budget.
King says the deficit figure the chamber ad refers to was a "structural gap" and it's the difference between what the state wanted to spend and what it actually was able to fund.
King's campaign has distributed its own information on the gap showing that every governor over the past 14 years has had similar gaps at the close of the budget cycle, including a projected $840 million shortfall for the fiscal year ending 2011 and a $774 million shortfall for the current biennial budget year ending in June 2013.
Engstrom refused to acknowledge those numbers, saying the ad wasn't about anybody else's record but King's.
"This debate is about the United States Senate race between Gov. King, Charlie Summers and Cynthia Dill," Engstrom said. "That's what our ad spoke to. The ad was ruled true and Gov. King wants to talk about anything other than his record."
King's campaign last week released records from the state's Office of Fiscal and Program Review that show 10 of the past 14 state biennial budgets going back to 1986 had structural gaps, the figure the U.S. Chamber is calling a deficit.
Only four biennial budgets ended in the black, including the first budget under King in 2000-01, which ended with $98 million in surplus.
King, in a meeting with the Sun Journal's editorial board last week, said the numbers reflect how well or how poorly the overall economy was doing at the time.
"The guys who made that ad don't know how the Maine budget system works," King said. He said the figures are based on projected revenues balanced against projected expenditures based on everything that's in state law.
"Whether or not it's likely to be funded, has ever been funded or might be funded," it's included in the structural gap, King said. "In other words, it's a kind of wish list."
He said the analysis the ad uses assumes everything is fully funded.
"It is never what the budget ends up being," King said. "The budget is what you have revenue for. It's impossible for the governor and the Legislature to have a deficit. It's illegal; it's unconstitutional."
King said the ad distorts his fiscal record and that he's proud of the way he managed state finances during his time in office. He noted that during his tenure, Maine socked away more money in its savings accounts, or reserves, growing what's known as the "rainy day" fund to nearly $140 million in 2000.
The fund now has just over $20 million.
Engstrom maintained the U.S. Chamber's ad is factual and accused King of trying to run from his record.
"If the best that Gov. King can come up with is using words like 'structural gap' — those are Washington words," Engstrom said. "People are tired of distractions and they are tired of explanations that don't address the substance. They want to hear where Gov. King is on his record and where he is on policy."
To say King's record didn't look much different from most Maine governors' records is a distraction, Engstrom said.
"Angus King is the one who is running for the U.S. Senate," Engstrom said. "When you put your name on the ballot, you have to own the record that you have. So he may not like that and he may want to create new words that are different than the words he used at the time."
Summers did not address the matter Tuesday, instead noting that the U.S. Chamber's ad was an independent ad, not authorized or approved by his campaign. Summers' campaign staff has defended the ad as accurate, however.
King, Summers and state Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, along with three other independent candidates, are running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
Summers said he was in town to show his support for small businesses like Simones' Hot Dog Stand.
"I do not believe the federal government needs to enact more regulation and more taxes," Summers said. "They need to get out of the way so that entrepreneurs, people who would rather work 18 hours a day for themselves than eight hours a day for someone else — like Jimmy Simones — can do the right thing for their employees, so their employees can in turn do the right thing for their families."