Fact-checking the Florida U.S. Senate open debate

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., left, and U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., take part in an open debate for the U.S. Senate on Monday in Orlando.
U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., left, and U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., take part in an open debate for the U.S. Senate on Monday in Orlando. AP

A pair of Florida congressmen invoked LeBron James’ tax bill and Planned Parenthood investigations during an open debate in pursuit of Marco Rubio’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.

U.S. Reps. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, and Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, skipped ahead of their primary process and fielded crowdsourced questions about taxes, abortion, the environment and more during the April 26 debate. Organizers said more than 80,000 viewers streamed the debate live, with an additional 165,000 views the following day.

Both candidates must still clear their respective party primaries in office. Jolly faces Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, defense contractor Todd Wilcox and developer Carlos Beruff in the Republican contest. Grayson is challenging U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a former Republican from Jupiter, in the Democratic primary.

PolitiFact Florida put two memorable claims from the dueling congressmen through the Truth-O-Meter.

The King’s taxes

Grayson stressed that the Social Security payroll tax cap on earnings should be lifted in order to make the program solvent. He used the mind-boggling salary of professional basketball superstar LeBron James to illustrate his point.

“Do you know when he stops paying his Social Security taxes? He stops paying his Social Security taxes at the beginning of the second quarter of the first game of the season,” Grayson said. “Rest of the game, pays nothing. Rest of the 81 games of the season, pays nothing. The offseason, still pays nothing. That's ridiculous.”

That’s a broad statement meant to draw attention to the fact that Social Security taxes are capped at $118,500 of a person’s income, no matter how much they make.

The Cleveland Cavaliers forward rakes in an average of $23.5 million per year as part of his current two-year contract, so it’s not like he’s going to depend on Social Security in his twilight years. What Grayson did is break down the NBA 82 regular-season games into their 328 respective quarters, then divided that against James’ $23.5 million average salary.

That amounts to $71,646.34 per quarter, which is almost $6,000 per minute, with 12-minute quarters. Not bad for a night’s work. Using that math, James hits the $118,500 taxable earnings cap somewhere before the eighth minute of the second quarter of the first game of the season.

Now, this interpretation is obviously just to make Grayson’s point easier to understand. There are plenty of caveats to this idea: Grayson is only accounting for regular-season game time, and not practices or preseason games or overtime or media appearances or anything else. The NBA season also splits the calendar year, while the tax year starts Jan. 1. Plus, James’ tax liability depends on several factors we can’t know.

But Grayson’s talking point that the mega-rich are only taxed on the maximum of $118,500 in income, no matter how much they earn, holds up. If you make less than that, you pay less, but James isn’t required to pay Social Security payroll taxes on his income beyond $118,500.

We rated this statement Mostly True.

Four is too many

After a question about whether he would support defending or defunding Planned Parenthood, Jolly said he opposed abortion and could not support the group, which has been under fire after being accused of selling fetal tissue.

But he acknowledged other women’s health services deserved funding and decried government wasting too much time and money on attacking Planned Parenthood.

“When my side of the aisle asked for an investigation of Planned Parenthood, I actually voted no. I was the only Republican to vote no,” he said. “Should the issue be looked at? Yes. But there were already three committees looking at the issue. We didn’t need a fourth. We’re either going to be the party of less government or not.”

The Republican-controlled House responded swiftly after the Center for Medical Progress released heavily edited videos in July 2015 alleging Planned Parenthood illegally sold fetal tissue after abortions.

The Energy and Commerce Committee, the Judiciary Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee all announced investigations into the videos on July 15. (The Senate also prodded the Health and Human Services Department to open an investigation.)

On Oct. 7, 2015, the House voted to create a select investigative panel “for the purpose of investigating abortion practices and the handling of and policies regarding fetal tissue, its cost, and how it is obtained.”

Planned Parenthood was not named in the resolution, but it was clearly the target of the investigation. Jolly was the only Republican to go against his party in a 242-184 vote, with two Democrats voting for it. (So far, no investigation on the federal or state level has uncovered proof of this activity, although the pair who made the videos was indicted by a Texas grand jury.)

Now, it’s not that Jolly was opposed to investigating Planned Parenthood. It’s that he was not in favor of spending more taxpayer dollars to investigate something already under the microscope, something he made clear in comments at the time.

We rated his statement True.

Politifact Florida is a partnership between The Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald to check out truth in politics.