Issue of Internet tax revived

By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 1/19/2000

ASHUA, N.H. - Back on Jan. 4, Arizona Senator John S. McCain's ''message of the day'' was his vehement opposition to taxes on on-line shopping.

''Say No to Internet Taxes,'' read a press release. ''The greatest economic engine of our time is in danger. Politicians across the country are trying to figure out a way to tax the Internet. ... stop the government from using the Internet as just another excuse to raid your pocket.''

McCain was not very good at staying on message that day. Speaking to workers at Providian Financial, a credit card and financial services company in Concord, he barrelled distractedly through his prepared text on the subject, losing his place at one point before charging on to other topics. At his next appearance that same day, he almost forgot to mention Internet taxes at all, though he had worked hard on the matter in the Senate.

But now McCain is in the throes of a bloody game of dueling tax plans with Texas Governor George W. Bush, his chief rival for the Republican nomination, and the issue of Internet taxation has taken on a new urgency.

Since Bush will not commit to a permanent ban on the taxes, McCain has been able to turn the tables and characterize the Texas governor as insufficiently dedicated to Republican orthodoxy.

And so yesterday, McCain challenged Bush to sign an ''e-Freedom Declaration,'' pledging to keep the Internet permanently tax-free.

Bush has criticized McCain's $237 billion, five-year tax plan as timid. And critics have lately charged that the Arizona senator is too liberal a Republican, citing his talk of using the surplus to safeguard Social Security and pay down the national debt, and his criticisms of Bush's $483-billion tax-cut plan for benefiting the wealthy.

McCain awoke yesterday to a front-page editorial by Manchester Union-Leader publisher Joseph W. McQuaid that said McCain was ''running in the wrong race,'' citing last week's endorsement of McCain by The Boston Globe as proof of his liberalism.

''The Globe likes McCain for the same reasons New Hampshire conservatives and Republicans in general are to oppose him. He wants big government to take over even more of our decisions,'' McQuaid wrote, before repeating his own newspaper's endorsement of flat-tax proponent Steve Forbes.

To counter such criticisms yesterday, McCain yesterday cited a Time magazine/CNN survey that found that 63 percent of Republican respondents think the surplus should be used to pay down the national debt.

He also argued strenuously for the ban on Internet taxes at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast here and signed the ''e-Freedom Declaration,'' which was written by Citizens for a Sound Economy, a nonprofit advocacy group devoted to reducing the role of government.

''We shouldn't harm this baby in the cradle,'' McCain said.

Candidates Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, and Orrin Hatch have also signed the pledge. Alan Keyes has not. ''I hope all the candidates will take that pledge. I urge Governor Bush to take that pledge,'' McCain said.

Bush has committed to extending the current moratorium on Internet taxes for three more years, said Rich Killion, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy. But he has deferred a decision on a permanent ban until the Advisory Commission on Internet Commerce, set up to study e-commerce when the original three-year moratorium on taxes was enacted in 1998, completes its recommendations in the spring. He reiterated that position yesterday.

At times yesterday, McCain sounded more like critics of his tax plan than like himself: He criticized state governors for opposing the ban because ''all these governors who are'' fighting ''it are running surpluses.''

''Everybody is saying there will be surpluses, as far as the eye can see,'' was his response to claims that permanently banning the taxes might not take account of a possible economic downturn.

That is the kind of statement McCain often uses to criticize himself. He frequently cites the changeability of the economy as the prime motivation for his more cautious tax plan.