Sunday, August 15, 1999

What do we do with surplus?

Just don't mess up, readers say

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While congressional Republicans and Democrats duel over how best to divide the spoils of a healthy economy, Tristate taxpayers worry that the wrong choices will make a mess of it.

        Of course, agreeing on the right choices is another matter.

        The Cincinnati Enquirer asked readers last Sunday to sound off on the issue of the day: What's the best way to deal with a projected federal budget surplus of $1 trillion?

        Is it best to cut taxes? Smarter to pay down the national debt? Do a little of each? Spend some on government programs? Do nothing?

        In more than 600 letters, faxes and e-mails, Tristate tax payers who are in retirement, punch a clock for a living, run small businesses or manage a household weighed in.

        Lots of older readers were particularly interested in making sure Social Security stayed afloat, not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren.

        Some readers said the issue was simple: You don't spend

        what you don't have. Pay down the debt first, they urged.

        Other readers were more than a bit distrustful of politicians. One argued that the debate was more a fight for political power than anything else. A few said they were overtaxed to begin with; any “extra” money ought to be returned by the government.

        Still others said making any wrenching changes was risking calamity. Leave it alone; things are fine, they said.

        Boil down the answers and a few themes emerge:

        • There's a surplus because Washington took too much in taxes in the first place. Give it back. We can spend it better.

        As Art Dietrich, 60, a general contractor from White Oak, said: “This money belongs to the taxpayers. It will do more good in our hands.”

        • What surplus? We'll believe it when we see it.

        That's among points made by Robert Burrell, 69, of Hyde Park. He's retired from a career in sales. “All this fuss over money that no one is sure will even be available.”

        • Pay the debt first. If it's a good idea to shed personal debt before spending more money, then it's a good idea for Washington, too.

        Exactly, say Barb and Tom Stumpf of Loveland: “The only thing that should be done with the surplus is reduce the debt.”

        • We can reduce debt and cut taxes. But we ought not to spend any more money.

        Explained Neil Marks, 51, a teacher of applied math and statistics at Miami University: “Reducing the debt and cutting taxes are not mutually exclusive alternatives if Congress will reduce spending.”

        For the most part, those who said cutting taxes was how a federal budget surplus should be used also listed a tax cut as more important than reducing the debt.

        Likewise, those who chose paying for new retirement savings accounts and spending more on education, defense and Medicare gave the edge to reducing the debt over cutting taxes.

        The fight over what to do is far from over. Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate are trying to sell the public on a $792 billion tax cut over 10 years, a bill they passed two weeks ago.

        President Clinton, a Democrat, says he'll veto it. He advocates smaller tax cuts and wants to reduce the debt and pay for what he considers essential programs.

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