Taxing The Hopes Of Workers

GEORGE F. WILL

November 25, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin recently roared to a labor audience that when he is president ''every double-breasting, scab-hiring, union-hurting employer in America will know the working people of America have a friend in the White House.'' But Lane Kirkland, the soft-spoken South Carolinian who heads the AFL-CIO, was more to the point: Too few working people are working.

Recalling that candidate George Bush promised to create 30 million jobs, Mr. Kirkland said: ''Giving him full credit for a small growth in jobs before his recession began to destroy them, he now owes us about 29,750,000.'' Mr. Harkin's hot rhetoric is a frivolous response to the cold numbers that tell, in grim new installments each day, an old story: Without economic growth, politics is embittered.

Last summer Connecticut's Gov. Lowell Weicker forced through income tax to close a budget gap. Last week, the instant the legislature convened in a special session called to consider repeal of the tax, Governor Weicker, who opposed the special session, announced another $175 million gap.

Sales tax revenues alone are $63 million below official expectations, but that is to be expected. The leader of the Republican minority in the state House says, ''You simply cannot siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of taxpayers' paychecks and then expect consumer sales to remain constant.''

Last summer California's Gov. Pete Wilson pushed through a combination of spending cuts and $7 billion of tax increases to close a $14.3-billion budget gap. But the gap will not stay closed. It is now $3 billion and growing.

If spending cuts alone are going to close California's budget gap, they must come primarily from the health, education and welfare programs that consume the lion's share of the $44-billion general funds budget. Because the fiscal year is five months over, even an across-the-board cut of 10 percent might not suffice.

Only spending cuts will be considered, according to leaders of both parties. A 10-percent cut in education would save $1 billion. Welfare? Last summer benefits for poor women and their children were cut 4.4 percent. Another cut like that would save just $55 million. If such a cut is made -- or is not made -- social tensions will deepen. The state says that by June 1993, children born in the United States to parents who are illegal immigrants will account for 25 percent of California's caseload.

In New Jersey last year Gov. Jim Florio pushed through a $2.8-billion tax increase. This month the resulting tax revolt replaced Democratic majorities with veto-proof Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature. The Republicans ran promising a partial -- very partial: just $550 million -- repeal of Governor Florio's tax package.

Now Democrats, many of them lame ducks, may make the fruits of victory bitter for Republicans. Democrats may rush to repeal the whole $2.8 billion by enacting, as they sashay out the door, a ''sunset'' provision causing the taxes to expire next June. This would force Republicans to re-enact most of them or inflict spending cuts that would call the voters' bluff.

In April 1968, President Johnson told some urban policy experts: Here's the number one problem. . . . You've got to figure out how to raise the taxes to pay for these social programs. . . . I'm sure you're all smart enough to tell us which programs work and which don't. What we need is someone smart enough to tell us how to convince the American people that they should ante up.''

Mr. Harkin, who relishes the role of roughneck, believes tough guys don't dance away from the liberal label. Fine. When he has had his fill of the fun of tough talk, he can turn to the problem that the last liberal president defined for liberalism almost a quarter of a century ago.

Mr. Harkin will find working people swelling the ranks of the tax revolt because federal, state and local taxes are taking the largest percentage of GNP since World War II. Two thirds of all families pay more in regressive Social Security taxes than income taxes.

Forbes Magazine -- probably not Mr. Harkin's favorite -- reports -- that when federal, state and local taxes are combined, California and New York, with 19 percent of American's population, have top marginal rates, of 44.1 percent and 47 percent respectively, higher than the top 40-percent rate in welfare state Britain. The Tax Foundation estimates that the earners in the average family of four this year worked from Jan. 1 through May 8 just to pay taxes -- three days more than last year.

Finally, Mr. Harkin may find that many working people cannot find work because taxation is smothering the private sector.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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