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No matter who wins the election, get ready for higher taxes
The Dallas Morning News
April 9, 2004

In the next few days, thousands of readers will finish and file their federal tax returns. Thanks to President Bush's third tax cut in three years, many will pay less than they did a year ago, especially those with investment income.

That's the good news. Here's the bad:

Some federal taxes almost surely will go up, regardless of whether Mr. Bush or John Kerry wins the election. The only questions are when and by how much.

The reason: Federal finances are in such a mess that, barring an even bigger boom than took place in the 1980s and 1990s, spending cuts alone won't eliminate the current deficit, even if pursued more seriously than now.

Unfortunately, neither candidate is likely to be candid on the subject this year. Since Walter Mondale lost 49 states in 1984 after correctly predicting the need for a tax increase, campaigns have seen little candor on taxes.

So far, both candidates are misrepresenting the other's positions.

Mr. Bush is running ads accusing Mr. Kerry of proposing a $900 billion tax increase, a fictitious figure based on health care proposals that the senator hasn't fully explained how to pay for.

Mr. Kerry accused the president of proposing or passing $6 trillion in unpaid initiatives, a figure based on everything from enacted tax cuts to his plan for a manned mission to Mars.

The Massachusetts senator has urged repealing the Bush tax cuts on those who earn more than $200,000. But even if enacted, that won't pay for proposals like his health plan, let alone close the budget gap.

Yesterday, Mr. Kerry outlined a set of tax-and-spending proposals aimed at cutting the deficit but stopped short of a detailed budget with realistic numbers.

Mr. Bush continues to urge an extension of his tax cuts, even as some fellow Republicans resist because of concern over the deficit.

He has portrayed the election as a choice between his tax cuts and the certainty Mr. Kerry will raise taxes, a contrast that a USA Today report on two Missouri focus groups indicate already has gained some traction with voters.

Such promises may be good short-term politics but carry big long-term risks.

In 1988, the first President Bush repeatedly said, "Read my lips, no new taxes." In 1990, he suffered severe political damage when forced to accept a tax hike as part of a deficit reduction plan. Later, he conceded that perhaps his pledge wasn't such a good idea.

Meanwhile, the lack of will to deal with the dire fiscal outlook was evident in congressional votes on the budget and highway funds.

In the Senate, a handful of Republicans joined with Democrats to revive the "pay as you go" rules that require offsetting measures to pay for both new tax cuts and spending increases.

But House Republican leaders succeeded in twisting enough GOP arms to block a similar provision in its budget resolution.

That puts the whole burden on curbing spending. At the same time, lawmakers of both parties were busy adding local "pork" to the highway bill.

Congressional attitudes will become more important in the next four years when Congress must decide whether to keep tax cuts that were given expiration dates to provide a phony cap on their cost.

A failure to extend them would reduce the deficit, but Mr. Bush and GOP congressional leaders are committed to their extension.

Mr. Kerry would bring a different attitude to the White House and would seek to keep the estate tax and restore a higher rate for upper-income taxpayers.

But though he might get support in the Senate, even if Republicans keep their majority, he would face strong resistance in a Republican-controlled House.

Ultimately, however, lawmakers will have to face this issue, regardless of who is president. So will Mr. Kerry, Mr. Bush or whoever gets elected in four years.

Each of the last three presidents -- two Republicans and a Democrat -- accepted tax hikes, regardless of what was said in the campaign.

The current fiscal mess ensures it will happen again, regardless of what Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry tell the voters.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington D.C. Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is cleubsdorf@dallasnews.com.

Posted: April 28, 2004


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