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  • Bush sells tax cut in Florida
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    Bush sells tax cut in Florida

    In his first trip to the state as president, Bush urges a Panhandle crowd of 2,500 to make their voices heard in Washington.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN and BILL ADAIR

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001


    Text of Bush's remarks
    PANAMA CITY -- Returning for the first time as president to the state that sent him to the White House, President Bush on Monday came to this Panhandle community to sell his tax cut and to pressure the state's Democratic senators to back it.

    After a resounding victory in the House, which last week passed the centerpiece of his tax cut plan, Bush faces a much tougher battle in the evenly divided Senate.

    "Write your senators!" Bush said, drowned out at Panama City's Marina Civic Center by the cheers of an adoring crowd of 2,500 people.

    Elsewhere, the reception was far chillier as Democrats mounted a television advertising campaign in the Panhandle that mocked Bush's election victory and portrayed his tax cut as ill-conceived.

    The president, in a brief exchange with reporters, responded to the ad. "Some of the Democrats here want to keep re-voting the election. But if they would listen to America, they would find that Americans want to move forward," he said.

    Monday's audience was composed of local Rotarians and chamber of commerce members, including most of Bay County's business and government elite.

    Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 8,000 in Bay County, yet Bush won here on Nov. 7 with 66 percent of vote, largely on the strength of the 6,700 people who staff and support Tyndall Air Force Base.

    "They darn sure better listen to the people," President Bush said, referring to Congress. "And the people can have a large say as to whether or not we want fiscally responsible government in Washington, D.C., or whether we're going to continue those spending orgies that spend your money on bigger and bigger and bigger baselines and budgets. . . . It's time to remember who pays the bills."

    He said his proposal to cut taxes by $1.6-trillion over 10 years would make tax rates more fair for people in all income brackets while helping the economy and leaving plenty for other priorities, such as increased military and education spending and maintaining Social Security benefits. It also would pay down the national debt by $2-trillion, he said.

    Florida's senators, Democrats Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, endorse a tax cut but say the Bush plan is too large and too skewed to help the wealthy.

    Minority Democrats criticized the House's action last week as a hastily conceived and premature measure that lavishes too much money on the wealthiest Americans. The critics complain it doesn't begin to leave enough to finance Bush's proposed military expenditures and Social Security benefits to millions of retiring baby boomers.

    Addressing the latter point, Bush countered Monday: "That's not the choice that we have here as we work on this budget." With cuts in other areas of the budget, he said, Social Security, military increases and other priorities can be adequately paid for "and there's still money left over."

    The debate is unfolding amid a mind-bending flurry of numbers that can be sliced either way depending on one's party affiliation.

    The White House argues the wealthiest 1 percent of American taxpayers would pay a greater share of income taxes under Bush's plan, and that their rate reductions -- in percentage terms -- would be lower than those at the lean end of the income scale.

    But Democrats are dealing in dollar amounts, not percentages. In one congressional report, they use the example of a restaurant worker who gets a larger percentage tax cut than a highly paid lawyer. The restaurant worker's tax liability might go down $200, but the lawyer's might go down by $10,000.

    Democrats call that "lopsided."

    The public, meanwhile, seems more than a little confused.

    Two-thirds of those surveyed in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll released last week said Congress should pass Bush's tax cut to stimulate the economy, and 57 percent said they like the idea of a $1.6-trillion tax cut over 10 years. But when given more specifics, the same people said they preferred the Democrats' plan, which calls for a more modest tax cut and keeps more of the surplus in the government's hands.

    Despite the vigorous back-and-forth, Bush promised he would try to carry on the debate without partisan rancor. Significantly, he shared the stage not only with Joe Scarborough, the Republican congressman from the far western Panhandle, but also Allen Boyd, a Democrat whose conservative congressional district stretches from Panama City east to Interstate 75.

    "Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't agree," Bush said, turning to look at Boyd and Scarborough. "But the thing about these two men is that we're going to agree to be respectful to each other."

    Boyd leads the Blue Dogs, a group of congressional Democrats that was critical of the way the GOP rushed the bill through last week.

    Bush has been campaigning for his tax plan around the nation, primarily in states he won in November where Democratic senators are seeking re-election.

    In Florida, freshman Democratic Sen. Nelson supported the Reagan tax cuts when he was a House member in 1981 and says those cuts led to the huge budget deficits of the 1980s and '90s.

    "I don't want to see Congress make that mistake again," Nelson said in a statement Monday.

    Graham and Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., have introduced a tax plan they hope will form the basis of a Senate deal.

    Unlike Bush's plan, which lowers all tax brackets and provides the biggest benefit to the wealthiest taxpayers, the Graham-Corzine plan would give nearly everyone the same amount. It would create a new 10 percent bracket for the first $9,500 of taxable income ($19,000 for married couples). That would result in a $475 tax cut for each taxpayer ($950 for married couples) each year.

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