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Candidates debate plans for Social Security

Bill Nelson aggressively assaults opponent Bill McCollum's position that young workers should be able to opt out of some Social Security taxes.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2000

TAMPA -- Wading into a pivotal issue in Florida's Senate race, Democrat Bill Nelson accused U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum and other Republicans Thursday of trying to "privatize" Social Security and contended their plans could reduce benefits.

Nelson's repeated criticism during a debate sponsored by the non-partisan Aging With Dignity advocacy group echoed Vice President Al Gore's complaints about George W. Bush's proposal. McCollum supports the Texas governor's plan, which would enable younger workers to keep a portion of their payroll taxes that now go to Social Security and invest the money instead in private retirement accounts.

"Should Social Security be recklessly endangered by privatizing part of it and investing in the stock market?" Nelson asked.

McCollum, a U.S. representative from Longwood, said Republicans don't want to privatize Social Security. He said they want to offer younger workers an opportunity to achieve greater returns through the stock market and emphasized that current Social Security recipients and older workers would be guaranteed to receive the current level of benefits.

Thursday's debate, devoted to issues concerning seniors, was expected to be the first one-on-one match-up between Nelson, the state insurance commissioner and a former member of Congress, and McCollum. Then Willie Logan crashed the party.

Logan, an Opa-locka state legislator running without party affiliation, had not been invited to participate in the debate. But when the debate started, he climbed onto the stage, sat next to McCollum and refused to leave.

"I am so happy to be here to witness democracy in Florida," said Logan, who participated in the debate.

Social Security and Medicare are expected to be key issues in the November election, particularly in Florida. More than 18 percent of Florida's 15-million residents are over 65 years old, and the number is expected to double by 2025. Medicare is projected to be insolvent by then, and Social Security would become insolvent by 2037 if nothing is done.

Against that backdrop, Nelson, McCollum and Logan each pledged to protect Social Security and Medicare, beef up long-term care options and provide a prescription drug benefit. But like the major political parties and the presidential candidates, they have stark disagreements over how to achieve those goals.

Nelson was the aggressor throughout Thursday's debate, often using specific numbers to bolster his argument as he portrayed himself as a fiscal conservative. Like Gore, he would use the federal budget surplus to pay down federal debt and use the savings on interest payments to shore up Social Security. He also would earmark billions from the projected surplus to prop up Medicare.

The presumptive Democratic nominee differs with Gore in at least one respect. Nelson said after the debate he does not endorse the vice president's proposal to use tax dollars to match individual contributions into new investment accounts for low- and middle-income workers. He said he will be releasing his own proposal.

McCollum mentioned tax cuts just once, noting his support for the repeal of the estate tax. But Nelson hammered away at tax cuts supported by McCollum and other Republicans, contending the cuts would soak up money needed to pay down the federal debt and preserve Social Security.

Relying on personal stories rather than statistics, McCollum described his own efforts caring for older relatives and coping with nursing homes and Medicare. He said he believes in better government, not bigger government.

"Some government is necessary," McCollum said, "but all of this big government, one size fits all that my opponent and some others want in Washington is not the way to go."

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