Beyond Beltway, little tax-cut stir

California's Central Valley is a window on how the tax-cut plan plays with the public.

It's harvest time in the northern reaches of the Central Valley, and Robert and Debbie Ramming have had a good year, bringing their organically grown tomatoes to market early when supply was low and prices strong.

But five years into full-time farming, they worry about economics - specifically, running a 40-acre farm and raising four children. Even so, a tax cut isn't high on their list of priorities.

As their congressman returns to his district to talk about what is a hot topic in Washington, it's clear the tax issue hasn't yet generated a lot of sizzle outside the nation's capital. This California swing district provides a window into what many analysts see as federal lawmakers' penchant for trumpeting issues that don't always connect with local needs.

"To be honest, I don't think much about the federal government," says Mr. Ramming. "When I think of government, I think of the county and the potholes out there and other things that need to be fixed."

Mrs. Ramming nods from beneath a sweat-stained cap. "I don't think it really touches us that much," she says of the tax-cut debate. "If there is money, I'd rather spend it on the schools."

Of course, others in this conservative district would like more cash in their pocket. "Yeah, give me the money back. They're just going to waste it," says Dan Gallardo, a construction worker.

Overall, reaction to Congress's plan to lower taxes by $792 billion has been muted, suggesting Republicans will need to build momentum in an era when jobs are plentiful and wages rising.

Further, while the political parties portray the tax-cut debate as one with great ideological significance, the independent-minded voters that abound in this district see it through a far more pragmatic lens. Few seem likely to cast future votes on the outcome of a tax cut that, even if passed, would pocket them only a few hundred extra dollars a year.

Under discussion is a Republican plan to chop taxes by $792 billion over the next 10 years. While the proposal passed Congress earlier this month, it did so over Democratic objection and a promised White House veto.

The $1 trillion question

A cut is possible because of a large projected surplus in the federal budget. Most of that surplus is earmarked for Social Security, and both parties have agreed more or less not to touch those funds. The question is what to do with the remaining $1 trillion.

Embedded in the tax-cut debate is partisan jockeying for the 2000 election. Critics call a massive tax cut fiscally irresponsible, given a range of circumstances that could lessen the surplus and a still-too-high national debt. Supporters call it a principled return of surplus revenues to the taxpayers who earned it.

For their part, voters seem hard-pressed to call it a big deal either way.

According to polls and a range of interviews throughout this district, people like the idea of a tax cut but don't rank it high on their list of priorities. And while reducing taxes is more popular than greater government spending, if that spending is targeted to specific areas of concern, support exceeds that of a tax cut.

A July Pew Research poll found that 70 percent of respondents wanted surplus funds, after preserving Social Security, devoted to education, the environment, health care, crime-fighting, and military defense.

Sentiments could be shifting, however. A poll released by Wirthlin Worldwide last week found that when the specifics of the Republican tax-cut plan were read to respondents, the plan was favored by 67 percent.

Whether Congress and the White House will be in a dealmaking mood when lawmakers return after Labor Day may depend on what happens this month as members take the pulse of constituents.

That's just what Rep. Doug Ose (R) is doing from his district headquarters in this prosperous rural hamlet of 40,000, with its Main Street of stone buildings and fluttering American flags.

A first-term member of the House, Mr. Ose was one of the moderate Republicans who "had serious concerns" about the tax bill. But after inclusion of a "trigger" mechanism meant to ensure that tax cuts were contingent on continued lowering of the national debt, Ose signed on.

The move carries some risk for Ose, who put the GOP nameplate on a district held for two decades by Democratic powerbroker Vic Fazio. The district has a moderate to conservative cast, though party registration tilts slightly to the Democrats.

Ose is spending August trying to sell the wisdom of a tax cut to his constituents. Indeed, if the tax-cut issue becomes increasingly potent, it could help cement his chances for reelection next year. Speaking before the Sacramento Rotary Club last week, he found confirmation that his cautious embrace of the tax plan was smart politics. After extolling its virtues, Ose got a question from fellow Republican Stan Mather.

"What if the surplus doesn't materialize?" asked Mr. Mather, giving Ose the perfect opening to explain his early reluctance to side with the bill until the trigger mechanism was added.

One of the peculiarities of this debate is that it is being fought on ground not easily ceded by conservatives. While lower taxes may be near and dear to Republican hearts, so too is reducing the national debt.

As a result, Democratic tut-tutting about cutting taxes based on projections alone resonates with many Republicans. But so does returning tax dollars.

In Sacramento, some of which is in Ose's district, city hall employee Matt Griffes is unequivocal about the tax cut: "I want my money back," he says.

While Republicans hope their plan provides a differentiating issue in a time of increasingly muddled party identity, it's a far cry from the tax revolt that erupted in this state 20 years ago.

There was a real growl to California's Proposition 13 antitax movement, which came from the public rather than the political establishment. It left little doubt that tax issues can be enormously potent at the right moment.

In the view of many analysts, that tax revolt paved the way for the Reagan era and was as significant a shift in the nation's political landscape as the New Deal.

Compared to the dollars and emotion of the 1978 tax revolt, this one "is not that big a deal," says Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Colored by history

In an odd twist of fate, California's experience with its own tax rebellion may color the views of some about the current tax plan.

Ken Wagstaff, a city council member in Davis, a college town and one of the more liberal outposts in Ose's district, says communities are still grappling with the legacy of Proposition 13.

Like many suburban communities, Davis has seen the state shift more costs to the local level even as development pressures mount. What would really help, says Mr. Wagstaff, is if Washington used some of the budget surplus to help communities fight sprawl by buying open space.

Farmer Ramming says the only part of the Republican tax-cut plan that really appeals to him is the elimination of the "death tax," a measure he figures would ease the transfer of his property to his children.

But like most farmers accustomed to the vagaries of climate and crop prices, Ramming grows skeptical when he hears words like "forecast" and "projection."

He feels the same way about promised lower taxes based on a promised budget surplus: "I don't know, I just find a lot of it hard to take too seriously at this point."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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