Kerry is carefully vague about cost of proposals

Republicans put estimate at $900 billion, insist he plans big tax increase

March 16, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Kerry, accused by President Bush of plotting a gargantuan tax increase, is under pressure to provide specifics on what budget plans he would push for if he won the White House - and how much they would cost.

Kerry vigorously denies he would raise taxes by $900 billion - a figure the Bush campaign pinned on him last week in its first negative ads against the likely Democratic nominee. But Kerry has avoided outlining a detailed plan with any alternative estimate.

"George Bush knows, and Dick Cheney know[s], that I'm not going to raise taxes on America," the Massachusetts senator said last week. "I'm just going to roll back George Bush's unaffordable, unfair tax cut for the wealthiest Americans so we can invest in health care and education."

His advisers say Kerry has been specific about a central point of his agenda - his intention to undo Bush's tax cuts for those earning over $200,000. But they say he is waiting to provide details that analysts would need to project the costs of his tax and spending plans.

Until then, Republicans are feeling free to do their own math on Kerry's plans, which include providing health care to millions of uninsured people and boosting education spending. Republicans point to their calculations to bolster the idea that the Democratic senator has an irresponsible economic plan.

The Republican effort shows that the arithmetic of policy proposals can be a potent weapon for presidential candidates. That is especially true this year, when the soaring budget deficit - projected to reach a record $477 billion - has made it even more consequential for the candidates to say how they would spend the nation's diminished revenue.

To arrive at the $900 billion figure, the Bush campaign took the estimated cost of Kerry's health care plan - $895 billion over 10 years, according to Kenneth E. Thorpe, a professor at Emory University - and assumed that Kerry would use tax-cut money to pay for it.

Kerry has indeed spoken generally of using money reaped from repealing tax cuts for wealthier people - which economists say could raise up to $450 billion over 10 years - to pay for health care and education. He has also proposed canceling tax benefits for companies that move their headquarters or income overseas. That step could yield an additional $80 billion over the next decade.

Still, neither Kerry nor his advisers have projected how much money he could raise that way.

The $900 billion figure "is deceptive and distortive," said Gene Sperling, a Clinton administration economist who is advising Kerry. "The single and sole and only purpose of that ad is to mislead."

But Sperling said he could not give a more accurate figure, saying Kerry wanted time to "reflect on the changes in the budget" before giving specifics.

In coming months, the Kerry campaign will be pressed to outline how he would pay for other proposals, such as his pledge to cut the deficit in half. Republicans point to such promises as evidence that Kerry will have no choice but to raise taxes sharply.

Bush and congressional Republicans, who are under pressure to produce a credible budget in a time of fiscal strain, don't have the luxury of keeping their plans under wraps. So they are eager to pin Kerry down.

Last week, during debate on the Republican-written budget plan, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a top Republican leader, submitted what he billed as a "simulated Kerry budget."

Assembled from press reports and an analysis from the National Taxpayers' Union - a pro-tax-cut group - it added up some of the proposals Kerry has discussed and arrived at $1.1 trillion over five years.

Santorum said the plan would impose tax increases totaling $351 billion and swell the deficit by an additional $738 billion over five years.

"Senator Kerry's budget would have been more fiscally irresponsible" than Bush's, Santorum told reporters. It "would have raised taxes, raised spending and increased the deficit, all of which were things that I think the American people would not like to see happening."

Santorum's mock Kerry budget was a rough sketch that left out some key elements of Kerry's plan, such as his inclusion of health care tax credits for individuals and small businesses - which Thorpe estimates are worth more than $170 billion - and his proposal to save tens of billions by streamlining health care costs.

But Kerry has offered so few details on those and other proposals that it's virtually impossible, economists say, to figure out what his plans would cost.

Kerry is "totally fudging the issue - that's part of my problem with estimating what he is doing," said Robert S. McIntyre, the director of Citizens for Tax Justice, which advocates tax cuts for middle-income people.

"But the Bush folks must have a crystal ball," McIntyre added, calling the president's projections of how much Kerry's proposals would cost something fit for "the comedy channel."

At this stage, budget analysts say, Kerry can benefit from keeping his tax and spending plans sketchy a while longer.

"The administration is at a disadvantage, because they have to put out a budget that we can all look at and comb over and laugh at, whereas Kerry can sort of put forth a broad mosaic of what he wants to do" said Robert L. Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

Republicans' latest tactics, Bixby said, are "in some ways an attempt to smoke him out."

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