MIA: Senator King's "Patently False" Statement

Senator David Sanders.
Senator David Sanders

Senator Bryan King has been an outspoken opponent of the Obamacare “private” option in the legislature. But while Arkansas’s state lawmaking body is out of session, King is taking his message to other states, warning them about the enormous costs and inflexibility of the program. Last week, King penned a letter to Utah lawmakers, urging them to resist the the lure of the Medicaid carrot that’s being waved by the Obama administration.
You can read the full letter here, but here’s one of the more poignant paragraphs:

Arkansas made a grave mistake in trusting the Obama administration’s false promise of flexibility, and as a result many folks in our state are experiencing buyer’s remorse. I urge my legislative colleagues in Utah to avoid repeating Arkansas’ mistakes.

It isn’t clear what effect the letter will have in Utah, but it’s already making waves here in Arkansas: in response to Senator King’s letter, Senator David Sanders, the father of Arkansas Obamacare, accused King of being flatly wrong on the facts.
Here’s what he told Arkansas News:

The charges that Sen. King makes are patently false…I think the only thing Sen. King is remorseful of is the fact that we’ve been able to get it through the legislative process twice.

Patently false? That’s a pretty serious accusation. Unfortunately, the Arkansas News story failed to explain what Sanders believed was “openly, plainly, or clearly” false in King’s letter, so I called him to ask for some clarification.
I spoke to Sanders for roughly ten minutes. In that conversation, the only specific statement of King’s that Sanders identified as “patently false” was King’s claim that the “private” option has been an “unmitigated disaster.” According to Sanders, this claim is untrue “by any objective measurement,” adding that “representing it that way is not accurate at all.” (Which seems like a weird thing to say because cost is considered a pretty objective measure by most people, and the program is already way over budget — a claim that Sanders does not dispute. More on that in a minute.)
But King’s claim that the PO has been an “unmitigated failure” was simply a statement of King’s opinion, not a declaration of fact. When Sanders said something is “patently false,” the clear connotation was that King misstated a fact or made a claim that is provably untrue. (As the Supreme Court has noted, there is no such thing as a false idea.) So I pressed Sanders further — what did King say that was provably untrue? There must be something else that justifies accusing one of your colleagues of making statements that are demonstrably false.
Sanders then proceeded to criticize another one of his colleagues, taking issue with some statements made by Rep. Joe Farrer. According to Sanders, Farrer has “said or even suggested” that the state would be “on the hook for money like right now. That’s simply not true,” Sanders said. I don’t recall seeing Rep. Farrer make that claim exactly, but I didn’t call Sanders to talk about Farrer — I called to ask about his comments about Bryan King.
Worried that I misunderstood his point, I asked Sanders if Bryan King had said anything factually inaccurate about the caps. Sanders replied by saying his beef is with the “overall misunderstanding” of how the caps work, proceeding to criticize Farrer again and this Forbes article. He said the facts have been “grossly misrepresented” over the last few weeks. But again, I didn’t ask Sanders about Rep. Farrer, or Forbes, or the Trix rabbit — I asked him about what Bryan King said.
Sanders continued to criticize Rep. Farrer, and once again took issue with the “overall characterization of the budget neutrality portion, the misrepresentation” in the Forbes article. Sanders added, “I think a lot of the things that have been said have been communicated in error. Again, I can’t say whether or not it was intentional or unintentional.”
Since Sanders was so insistent in focusing on budget neutrality instead of identifying Senator King’s “patently false” statement, I asked him directly if the case made in the Forbes piece — and by Senator King — was untrue. Specifically, I asked Sanders, “Is it not correct that we are over budget neutrality?” He said:

What’s incorrect is that right now that we are on the hook for some money.

This answer presents another problem for Sanders because I have never seen a critic of the private option make the claim that we owe money right now. What private-option critics have claimed is that if the costs don’t come down and Arkansas does not receive a cap increase from our federal overseers, then Arkansas taxpayers will be on the hook for cost overruns. Amazingly, Sanders agreed with this analysis of what could happen if costs stay above the cap and we don’t receive a cap increase: “I don’t disagree with that either. I don’t disagree with that at all.”
And the idea that Arkansas taxpayers “will” be on the hook is my phrasing, not the Forbes piece’s. The authors of that piece were very careful to use the word “could,” which is more generous than I was in my conversation with Sanders. Indeed, this makes Sanders’s displeasure even more mysterious.
Sanders also added that he takes issue with the Forbes article’s assertions that Arkansas has no cost controls, arguing that Arkansas has “taken action” to implement cost-saving actions by limiting wrap-around benefits — and then he once again made Rep. Farrer into a punching bag, by again taking issue with something Farrer once told him about the impact of utilization on premium prices. I guess all of that might be interesting to someone — but, again, it had nothing to do with Senator King’s unidentified claim that was, allegedly, “patently false.”
Ultimately, Sanders did not identify one single thing that King said that was “patently false.” Instead, he criticized Rep. Farrer (whose name I never mentioned) and the Forbes article for what he called “misrepresentations.” And he eventually agreed with me that — if PO costs don’t come down and the state does not receive a cap increase — Arkansas taxpayers will be on the hook for the cost overruns. I don’t want to be rude, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Sanders knows perfectly well that King didn’t say anything “patently false.” Sanders just doesn’t like what King said.
I’m beginning to notice a trend here with Sanders: on Friday, for example, he issued a declaratory statement, condemning a press conference held by Senator King and Rep. Farrer. According to Sanders, the event was full of “grossly overstated claims and criticisms” — but he failed to point out what those grossly overstated claims and criticisms are. “Grossly” is a pretty high bar; you would think that exaggeration of that level would be easy to disprove. It’s almost as if Sanders is more interested in declaring that others are in the wrong than in doing the hard work of scoring the points that win the argument.
Insinuating that a legislative colleague is talking nonsense is a pretty serious thing. When someone declares that something is “patently false,” that usually means there’s been a misstatement of a provable fact. It’s probably a good practice to have some supporting evidence for such a claim before throwing it out in the statewide media.
Obviously the mainstream media is very interested in Republican infighting; I’m sure it generates a lot of web clicks, particularly this close to a primary election and around an issue as controversial as Arkansas Obamacare. But I’m the kind of guy who appreciates a discussion of facts, information, and supportable claims — not a contest to see who can shout the loudest.
Oh, and by the way: the offer I made to Sanders over a month ago still stands. He’s welcome to write a guest piece for us to explain the myriad of alleged inaccuracies in the Forbes piece. (I just hope he has better arguments than the ones he’s using against Senator King.) Senator, your podium awaits.

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