Tax tale turns fuzzy

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 10/8/2000

EW PORT RICHEY, Fla. - George W. Bush likes to say the tax code is too confusing for regular folks. Yesterday, for a moment, that appeared to include him.

Railing against an unjust system during a speech at a local community college, Bush gave his favorite example: a single mother earning $22,000 a year. But when he attempted to explain the woman's tax burden, the Texas governor found himself tangled in a web of numbers and words.

''She starts to lose her earned income tax credit. For the first time, she's in the 15 percent bracket,'' he began.

''When you add another 15 percent pay, or 16.2 percent payroll tax on top of that, plus the 2.9, I mean the payroll tax and the Medicare tax, 16.4 percent, you end up with a high marginal rate,'' Bush said. ''And that's not right, and that's not fair. We're going to drop the rate and lower the ...''

Turning to his brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, Bush held the microphone away to ask, ''What is the minimal tax?''

The question was only partially audible, but Jeb Bush had an unmistakable reaction: He burst out laughing, shaking his head as if to say he had no idea.

The Texas governor turned back to the audience. ''Fifteen point three percent,'' he announced, without explanation.

A few audience members were heard giggling.

''Twelve point four and two point nine,'' Bush continued.

As the laughter in the Pasco Community College auditorium grew, Bush finally admitted his stumble and joked: ''I was trying to do some fuzzy math.''

''Yeah, I used his calculator. Then I used the real one,'' he said. He was referring to his new line about Al Gore, whom he accuses of using a ''fuzzy math calculator'' to describe the Bush tax-cut proposal.

As it turned out, Bush had corrected himself accurately, if not articulately: The woman would pay half of the 12.4 percent Social Security tax, and 2.9 percent for Medicare. That totals 15.3 percent - the number Bush eventually came up with.