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Stat check: Jeb Bush says he "cut state spending more than anybody"

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The rank-and-file conservative base does not share rich Wall Street donors' enthusiasm for Jeb Bush, so the Bush campaign is seeking to bolster its conservative bona fides with the argument that Jeb is the No. 1 spending cutter in the field.

Bush says he was the top spending cutter, followed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is so far behind in the polls as to be no threat to Bush.

But Jindal's camp disagrees, saying that Jindal is the champion spending cutter and Bush was profligate:

The discerning eye will note that Jindal's chart is sourced to the Cato Institute, a DC think tank, doing an analysis of data from the National Association of State Budget Officers. Jeb, by contrast, is citing the legendary chart junk purveyors at Fox News.

So who is right? In a sense, calculating the relative spendthriftiness of different state governments is a much more complicated task than either of these charts portrays. In another sense, Jindal is right, and the Bush camp is making its case by labeling its data incorrectly.

Louisiana spent less under Jindal; Florida spent more under Bush

The Jindal chart is based on the simplest possible calculation you could do.

The Cato Institute took the spending level at the beginning of each governor's term in office, then the spending level at the end, and then it calculated the average annual change. The result looks like this:

Cato Institute

Basically you are looking at Jindal's chart, just with ugly design elements and not really organized to highlight Jindal. One obvious rejoinder from the Bush camp is that Florida's population grew rapidly during Bush's term in office, and it would make more sense to look at per capita spending.

Except according to Cato, Jindal was actually being unfair to himself by not adjusting for population.

Cato Institute

Accounting for population growth does cut about 2 percentage points off the Bush figure (and does the same for Rick Perry), but it doesn't change the overall fact that under Bush spending grew more rapidly than it did under Chris Christie or Scott Walker or Mike Huckabee or even George Pataki. You could bring down everyone's lines by including an inflation adjustment, but this would still show Bush in positive territory and Jindal as a spending cutter.

Jeb Bush was conservative compared with contemporary governors

So what the heck is Bush talking about? Well, here's the original Fox News graphic that his team redrew for the campaign:

Fox News

Bush's strategy was to take a chart of "change in state spending per year vs average state" and simply relabel it "change in state spending per year." As people familiar with the English language will discern, these are different things.

What Jeb's chart shows is that relative to other governors serving since 2011, Walker and Jindal have been about average on spending while Jeb was a more conservative budgeter than the average 1999–2007 governor. This is definitely an interesting observation. It underscores the fact that the overall economic climate was friendlier to state government spending back in the Jeb years because there was no recession to cripple tax revenue. It also underscores the fact that Democrats were much stronger in state government back then — Florida was relatively unusual in having GOP control over all three branches of state government throughout Bush's tenure in office, while since 2010 there have been many GOP-controlled states.

The bottom line: Jeb's claim is a little false and a lot misleading

The best way to assess potential presidents' plans to cut federal spending would be for the candidates to release policy proposals related to forward-looking federal spending. State spending trends are driven by legislative politics, population trends, economic circumstances, and baseline issues — there may be more spending to cut in New Jersey than in Texas.

But while there are complicated issues in this conceptual space, we should not overcomplicate the specific issue of Jeb's chart — he is taking an old Fox News chart and mislabeling it.