Yes, 128 Clinton fees and taxes

Fred Malek

September 24, 1992|By Fred Malek

A LOUD chorus of pundits says the Bush-Quayle campaign has twisted the facts in compiling a list of 128 taxes and fees raised during Bill Clinton's tenure as governor of Arkansas.

This assertion, which has entered the media echo chamber, has provided grounds for some to accuse the president of "distortions" and "dirty tricks."

But these detractors have it wrong. As Mr. Bush said Tuesday of Mr. Clinton, it's important to explain "the Grand Canyon that separates his rhetoric from the reality of his record."

The Bush-Quayle campaign assembled its list of 128 by taking records of tax and fee increases out of a handbook printed by the Arkansas legislature. No one seriously disputes the numbers anymore -- even a Clinton aide recently put the actual total at 127.

On every substantive item, our list's critics got their facts wrong. They accused us of double-counting when we were being scrupulous in avoiding that pitfall.

They complained because we listed as separate taxes a group of separate taxes bundled into a single bill -- a cavil, not a refutation.

What about the complaint that we did not take Clinton-era tax cuts into account? As it turns out, at least 43 of the 48 "cuts" usually cited by the governor's defenders apply exclusively to businesses. Many are controversial special-interest exemptions that apply to single businesses or industries.

Unfortunately, these deals defy thorough analysis because a law signed by Mr. Clinton in 1987 (and repealed last year) hides the details of these giveaways from the public.

Paradoxically, the governor's largest non-business tax cut, in 1991, made Arkansas' tax code conform to the Reagan-Bush tax reform law of 1986 -- 1,561 days after President Reagan signed the measure.

In the same legislative session, Mr. Clinton raised the regressive state sales tax and extended it to used cars -- hardly a move aimed at helping the middle class.

A final canard holds that Arkansas is a low-tax state, ranking 49th in state and local taxes. This claim relies on two sleights of hand: It mingles local taxes, over which Bill Clinton has no control, with state taxes.

This helps obscure the relatively high tax burden in Arkansas. And rather than measuring tax rates, this accounting method counts tax receipts. If you examine tax burden per income dollar -- the measure that matters -- Arkansas ranked 25th of the 50 states in 1990.

This ranking does not account for a tax increase Clinton signed last year, the largest in Arkansas history.

Mr. Clinton has raised taxes on at least 58 separate occasions by our count -- a number that his aide, Dick Atkinson, says "is the approximate number as far as we know."

The governor was not forced to accept these raises, and he has expressed regrets over his repeated failure to raise state income taxes. Moreover, the tax burden has become increasingly regressive in Arkansas, with the poor and middle class suffering the most.

In short, Mr. Clinton believes in taxing and spending, just like any other conventional Democratic politician.

While Mr. Clinton accuses the Bush administration of perpetuating "the big lie" about his record in Arkansas, he has unleashed a series of whoppers in recent days.

He alleged that Mr. Bush will "stop giving benefits to 1.2 million veterans," will approve proposals to cut Medicare 60 percent, will "subject all Social Security benefits to taxation," will "freeze Social Security [cost-of-living adjustments] for five years" and will "cut [Social Security] benefits across the board." These claims are false.

The campaign should focus on issues, not innuendo, and the public should demand honest accounting on both sides.

But in the discussion of the 128 tax and fee increases, many reporters have been content to repeat accusations against us, rather than to examine the list.

We compiled it to raise important issues. On Mr. Clinton's record: Has he raised taxes and spending dramatically, or hasn't he? Did he do so willingly or under pressure from his legislature?

On the economy: Do you create jobs through higher taxes and more centralized economic control, or through lower taxes, deregulation and greater individual economic freedom?

We hope journalists will seek the facts next time before they rush to condemn our arguments and our morals.

Fred Malek is general manager of the Bush-Quayle campaign.

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