President flies to one of poorest states, boasts the wealthy will 'pay fair share'

August 10, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

CHARLESTON, W. Va. -- President Clinton was a minister preaching the gospel of his 1993 budget deal yesterday -- and West Virginia was his choir.

Mr. Clinton, on the first stop of what is shaping up as a national victory tour to celebrate passage of his budget package, told thousands of cheering West Virginians here that they finally had a president who had forced the wealthy to "pay their fair share."

"Every serious economic analysis shows that the top 1 percent of our earners got over half the economic benefits of the last decade -- and a tax cut as well," said Mr. Clinton from the steps of the state Capitol in the nation's most economically depressed state. "We asked them to pay more."

In flying to this mountainous state capital to deliver his message, Mr. Clinton's advisers appeared to have chosen the perfect setting.

West Virginia's unemployment rate of 12.5 percent is the highest in the nation and has been for some time.

Thousands of the state's working poor families stand to benefit from the president's $21 billion expansion of the earned income tax credit, which is designed to lift families making less than $27,000 a year out of poverty.

West Virginia also is solidly Democratic. Moreover, they don't see many sitting presidents in these parts. The last was Mr. Clinton's hero, John F. Kennedy, who stood on the same spot as Mr. Clinton 30 years ago.

Far away from the podium, sitting in the shade, Alease Beverly said, "I was here for John Fitzgerald."

Asked why she had come for Mr. Clinton, she replied, "You know why I'm out today. I think he's wonderful. I think they're giving him a hard time, the Republicans, but he's trying to help the poor people, trying to make the rich pay more taxes. And that's fair."

John Kessell, a 19-year-old college student who voted for Mr. Clinton last year in his first presidential election, said he supported the president's economic package.

"I like it about the wealthy paying a little more, I can tell you that," he said.

Though the state government recently enacted a nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax increase, Mr. Kessell and others said they were not troubled by the prospect of paying another increase of 4.3 cents per gallon under the Clinton plan. Most were hopeful, though not terribly optimistic, that Mr. Clinton's package would spur the economy.

"Jobs are hard to come by around here," Mr. Kessell said.

In introducing Mr. Clinton, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, a wealthy scion who came to the state as a VISTA volunteer as a young man, played upon the class antagonisms common in the hollows and hillsides of this state.

"West Virginia is the tradition of community, Mr. President, not S&L rip-off artists," he said. "West Virginia is miners, farmers, steel workers . . . good people. No speculators. No leverage buyout kings. . . ."

As Mr. Clinton pointed out in his speech, only 1 percent of West Virginia's taxpayers -- something like 4,500 of them -- will see their income taxes increased. By contrast, about 105,000 West Virginia working-class families are eligible for tax rebates under the earned income tax credit.

"Just think of it, 105,000 West Virginia working families being eligible to get some help to clothe their children and feed them and pay the medical bills," the president said.

The flip side to the West Virginia coin is that in some ways Mr. Clinton's package is more than simple income redistribution. It is also a tax on regions of the country that have higher wages and higher housing costs, some of which -- notably California -- are also suffering economically.

When giving his closing argument on the Senate floor last week, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell told his colleagues that fewer than 1 percent of those in Maine, his home state, would pay higher taxes.

"If every senator looks at his or her state, you'll find about the same thing," Mr. Mitchell said.

Some did, however, and they didn't find the same thing at all.

In California, which has had unemployment close to 10 percent for two years, the percentage of those paying higher incomes taxes is twice as high as in Maine and West Virginia, according to even Democratic Party estimates.

New York's rate is higher still, and in Connecticut the figure is three times as high.

(Figures provided by the Democratic Policy Committee last week showed that Maryland's rate is roughly the national average of 1.2 percent.)

In towns such as Greenwich, Conn., where housing prices are seven or eight times the national average, people defined by Mr. Clinton's tax code as wealthy are actually smack dab in the middle of the middle class.

But that argument didn't carry much weight with the crowd who came to hear the president in West Virginia.

"I'm unemployed now, but when I was an accountant, I prepared a lot of returns for people right on the edge [of poverty]," said 38-year-old Phyllis Chaney of Charleston. "The [earned income tax credit) helped a lot of single mothers. And I think it's a good policy to expand it."

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