In Louisiana, Bush takes tax-cut push to middle class families

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 8/25/2000

EW ORLEANS - After admitting he has not done a good enough job selling his $1.3 trillion tax-cut proposal, George W. Bush yesterday relied on a smiling family of four to argue that his plan would help working Americans and not just the wealthy, as Al Gore has charged.

''I want to put a face on the current tax-relief package,'' the Republican presidential contender said on a day in which he and Vice President Al Gore stepped up the debate over the effects and fairness of their competing tax proposals.

In Louisiana, Bush illustrated his point with Andrew and Margaret Bechac of Mandeville and their two daughters. Bechac, a high school football coach and former local Republican activist, said: ''We want to thank Governor Bush for his proposed tax cuts, because I truly believe in education. I am a schoolteacher, and we would love to plan our future around educating our children.''

Bechac pledged to place the $1,600 he would save under the Bush plan in an educational trust fund for his girls, 4-year-old Meredith and 1-year-old Camille. The two wore freshly pressed pink dresses at a news conference arranged in the aftermath of Gore's criticism.

Under the existing tax code, the Bechacs pay $2,075 in federal taxes on $40,000 of annual income. Bush has proposed an across-the-board tax cut and would double the current $500 per-child tax credit. Those changes would reduce the Bechacs' federal taxes to $475.

Drawing a contrast to the Gore tax-cut proposal, Bush aides said the Bechacs would not qualify for any of the child care, higher education, prescription drug, or other narrowly defined breaks included in the vice president's $500 billion tax-cut plan. Gore's campaign said a typical family of four with a gross income of $40,000 would be eligible for $2,525 in tax credits under the Gore plan.

''The so-called targeted tax cut means that some are targeted out of tax relief,'' said Bush. ''I believe that Andrew and his family should have more money in their pocket. They ought to share in some of the surplus, so that he can make decisions for his children, so that they can plan for their children's future.''

The meeting with the Bechacs was part of a more aggressive response by the Bush campaign as Gore has pulled even or ahead in public opinion polls. One of the vice president's messages has been that Bush's tax plan - a hallmark of his campaign - was tilted toward the wealthy and would ''wreck our good economy.''

On Tuesday, Bush admitted he had not done a good job selling his proposal. Gore and his running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, immediately seized upon the comment.

''With all due respect to Governor Bush, the problem isn't explaining the tax plan, it's the plan itself,'' Lieberman told a Florida audience Wednesday. ''And the problem is that it benefits the wealthy, not the hard-working families in America.''

Gore continued pounding that drum yesterday, meeting with a family in Maryland to highlight his higher-education tax credit.

Bush has proposed granting a tax cut with about a quarter of the $4.6 trillion federal budget surplus projected over the next 10 years. Under his 10-year, $1.3 trillion plan, Bush would reduce the five tax brackets to four, drop the highest one from 39.6 percent to 33 percent, and reduce the lowest one from 15 percent to 10 percent.

He would also reduce the so-called marriage penalty and repeal the estate tax over an eight-year period.

In dollar terms, the wealthy would benefit the most from Bush's plan: About 60 percent of the $1.3 trillion would go to taxpayers earning $92,500 or more, with 12 percent going to those with incomes of $39,300 or less.

According to Citizens for Tax Justice, a labor-funded research group, the richest taxpayers, those earning more than $319,000 a year, would get an average $46,000 tax cut.

Gore argues that Bush's plan uses budget surpluses for rich people who don't need tax help, jeopardizing spending on education, the national debt, Social Security, and a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Bush contends the surplus is big enough to accommodate his tax cut and still take care of the other priorities. Even after setting aside Social Security funds and granting his tax cut, Bush estimates, there would still be about $1 trillion for other spending.

By contrast, Gore has proposed a $500 billion tax cut that includes a lengthy list of specific tax credits and deductions aimed at the roughly 80 percent of taxpayers earning less than $75,000 a year.

They include breaks for long-term health care, higher education, small-business health insurance, after-school expenses, and tax-free retirement savings accounts.

Gore says a married couple with two children - one in college - earning $60,000 a year could save $3,025 in taxes if they took advantage of his proposed retirement savings accounts, increased standard deduction for married couples, and credit for college tuition. This is a bigger tax cut than under Bush's plan in those circumstances, the Gore campaign says.

The Bush campaign counters that Gore's proposals are so detailed, some 50 million Americans would not qualify for a tax break.

''I welcome the tax debate,'' Bush declared to reporters yesterday aboard his campaign plane. He refused to back down when told polls do not show support for a large tax cut. Instead, Bush said he considered that fact to be a badge of honor.

''When I walk in front of Congress, should I be the president, and say, `This is what I campaigned on from Day One,' the people in the Congress are going to hear that the people have spoken. And it may not show up in that survey you read, but it's going to show up in this guy's wallet today,'' he said, referring to Bechac.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes challenged Gore's assertion that he was the candidate for working families and Bush cares only about the wealthy.

''Clearly, the Bechac family, with a $40,000 annual income, don't represent the rich or the powerful. They are a working family, and Vice President Gore's targeted tax cut misses the target for them, as well as for a lot of other families,'' Hughes said.

While in Louisiana, Bush visited Dillard University, where he unveiled a proposal to increase funding for such historically black colleges and universities by $320 million over five years, and to boost funding for so-called Hispanic serving institutions by $80 million over the same period.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.