Divided take on tax-cut proposal

Many Americans set higher priorities

March 02, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. - George Lias was just standing behind the counter of his paint shop, unprepared for the out-of-nowhere question: Does he like President Bush's $1.6 trillion tax-cut proposal?

Shifting his thinking from paint to politics, he seemed at first to warm to the idea of tax relief: "They should give it back instead of keep it. Politicians have a tendency to keep it."

But after a moment of collecting his thoughts, he added that "paying the national debt and helping the elderly with their fuel bills" should be much higher priorities than cutting taxes.

In trying to drum up support for sweeping tax cuts, Bush may well face a problem. His tax-cut proposal, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, has not exactly caught fire. Recent national polls and more than a dozen interviews yesterday in this gritty mill town in western Pennsylvania point to a general sentiment: lukewarm, and a bit unsure.

OK, give me a tax cut, people here say. But don't expect it to make a significant difference for my family. And don't do it if it means shortchanging other priorities, such as Medicare, Social Security, education or paring down the debt.

Bush visited this area on Wednesday, touring a family business a half-hour south of Ellwood City, to promote his plan. It was not surprising. Pennsylvania is a key swing state that Bush narrowly lost in November. And one of its senators, Republican Arlen Specter, is among a group of moderates Bush is trying to win over in advance of a vote on his tax-cut plan in an evenly divided Senate.

This area, just north of Pittsburgh and hugging the Ohio border, is unpredictable political terrain, home to many voters who are socially conservative but who grew up in union families and can often be wooed by either Republicans or Democrats.

In Ellwood City, with a population of about 9,000, people seem less than excited about tax relief - regardless of whether they voted for Bush.

"If I got a few hundred [dollars], I could put a new roof on my house," said Keyon Greene, 39, a construction worker. "But the thing they should do is do Medicare for the elderly. They're on fixed income, and half their paychecks go to medicines."

Greene and his wife have three children, and their 17-year-old daughter, who lives with them, recently had a baby. The couple both work and pay taxes, but Greene called his tax burden "not too bad" and said he would prefer that his 73-year-old mother pay out less of her Social Security money for prescription drugs if the federal government could absorb more of their cost.

The blase attitude in the public did not seem to be on Bush's mind when he visited the town of Beaver near here this week. The president seemed to warn members of Congress that they ought to weigh public sentiment carefully before voting against his plan.

But polls show that many Americans place other priorities ahead of cutting taxes and they remain unconvinced that Bush's plan would provide meaningful relief to lower- and middle-income families. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 80 percent of Americans believe that Bush's plan would benefit the wealthy most.

At least in Ellwood City, people also seem unconvinced that Bush can offer a tax cut as big as he wants and still pay for the rest of his priorities. The president has vowed that, even with the tax cut, he can pay down $2 trillion in debt over the next decade and have money for Medicare and Social Security and to boost funding for education, defense, medical research and other programs.

"How do you cut taxes and pay more money for education?" asked Antonia Moser, who works for a community group that helps poor mothers. "That seems backward."

"Every dollar counts," Moser said of a tax cut. "But if it's going to cut a program I want, I don't want the money."

Ellwood City is in Lawrence County, a key battleground in recent elections. It may not represent a cross section of America - there are few minorities and few wealthy residents. But it is the kind of place where Bush might need to stir up enthusiasm for his tax cut if he is to convince any wavering senators that Americans generally favor it.

Bush lost Lawrence County by about 2,500 votes in November, but the congressional district here elected a freshman Republican, Rep. Melissa Hart, allowing the party to pick up an additional seat in the House.

This region still suffers from the closings of several large steel mills in the 1980s, which left the area depressed and short on jobs. As in many blue-collar regions, people seem wary of excessive government spending. Several Democrats said they voted for Bush because they believed that Al Gore would have prodded Congress to spend too much.

Still, once they consider specific programs that are important to them, many say they are hesitant to fully back Bush's tax cut for fear that it would rob those programs.

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