GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Senate Democrats unleashed on Wednesday the first piece of a $9.1 million North Carolina advertising blitz that criticizes GOP hopeful Thom Tillis for making deep cuts to education spending and providing tax breaks for his wealthy friends. Republicans immediately called the claims "outright lies."
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's effort to aid endangered first-term incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan centers on Tillis' tenure as speaker of the state House. Democrats have spent months combing through Tillis' voting record and now are starting to tell voters through ads about the conservative GOP caucus he led in Raleigh.
"House Speaker Thom Tillis drew a bulls-eye on public schools, cutting nearly $500 million," a narrator in the 30-second ad says. "Tillis sliced and diced education, creating chaos in our classrooms and hurting middle class families."
Tillis' campaign called the ads "shamelessly false." The question of accuracy turns of the definition of a "cut."
The Democrats' criticism focuses on state GOP budget plans that slowed the pace of year-to-year spending increases. That led to a $480 million gap between what budget writers said would be needed to maintain the same level of services in the state's schools and what lawmakers actually approved.
On the other hand, education spending has increased every year since Tillis became speaker in 2011. In the last two years, spending at all levels of education is up by about $700 million.
Even with increased overall education spending, the legislature under Tillis' watch has reduced projected spending and critics say that has harmed classroom instruction in the public schools. Many Democrats were unhappy with a Tillis-backed 2013 law that pays for students to attend private schools.
While more overall, it is less than what was projected would be needed. Much of the spending increase is due to increased costs of educating growing numbers of students in classrooms. North Carolina now has the 10th largest population of any state.
Tillis' campaign quickly criticized Democrats, including the president and the top Democrat in the Senate.
"Kay Hagan's Democratic allies, including Barack Obama and Harry Reid, are trying to buy North Carolina's Senate race with a flood of shamefully false television ads that contain outright lies," Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said.
Earlier this year, similar claims about education came in ads sponsored by an arm of EMILY's List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights. Those claims were also called misleading.
"Thom has a proven record of balancing budgets, giving teachers historic pay raises and creating opportunities for North Carolina families," Keylin said.
In recent days, Hagan has focused her campaign on Tillis' positions on education, hoping to tilt female voters into her camp. If Hagan is to win a second term, she will need the overwhelming support of women to prevail in one of the closest and most expensive races in the country.
Hagan also points to Tillis' proposed elimination of the federal Education Department, a favorite target for conservative candidates. Tillis tells audiences that North Carolina parents should determine what North Carolina students learn, and that Hagan favors a federal approach to schools.
Hagan calls that irresponsible and inaccurate. North Carolina is expected to receive $910 million from the federal Education Department next year. Much of that money is for poor and rural schools. Hagan has criticized Tillis as someone who, if elected to the Senate, would be working to take dollars away from North Carolina students and teachers.
Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said the DSCC ads show Tillis backs an "agenda that has rigged the system against the middle class."
"Speaker Tillis is trying everything he can to run from his record of gutting public education in order to give tax cuts to the wealthy, but North Carolinians won't be fooled," Weiner said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad also criticizes what it calls Tillis-backed "tax breaks to yacht and jet owners," trying to pit the Republican against North Carolina families struggling with 6.4 percent unemployment.
North Carolina's tax system caps the sale tax on yachts and jets at $1,500, while making county club memberships tax exempt.
North Carolina's Senate race is among the handful of contests that will decide which party controls the Senate after the election. Republicans need to pick up six Senate seats to claim a majority, and their outside allies are already on television airwaves with strong criticism of Hagan.
Elliott reported from Washington.
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