September 25, 2005

Mood seems to be against renewing all tax cuts

Jonathan Riskind, The Columbus Dispatch

"Weíve got to get real," Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio said last week, imploring fellow lawmakers to reconsider federal spending and tax-cut priorities as yet another hurricane bore down on the battered Gulf Coast.

Voinovich was saying publicly ó in the crankymaverick role he relishes ó what a number of Republicans, the party in control of Congress, are beginning to concede privately.

Other than some select tax cuts aimed at hurricane-recovery efforts, tens of billions of dollars of President Bush-backed tax cuts may not be made permanent this year as Congress grapples with how to pay for hurricanes and Iraq and keep the $300 billion deficit from soaring even higher.

Hey, say many Democrats, with more than $1.3 trillion worth of tax cuts passed since 2001, why not put at least some of that on the table to help pay for the $200 billion worth of Katrina-related costs? Itís a point with which Voinovich seems to agree, as long as Democrats would be willing to put some spending on the table, as well.

Think the cost of Hurricane Katrina is being exaggerated? The word on Capitol Hill last week was that the $62 billion relief package would be increased by some $50 billion by next month, not counting the $6 billion package of tax relief for Katrina victims. And thatís far from the last money Congress is expected to allocate for hurricane relief in the near future, especially with the double blow from Hurricane Rita.

But there is a lot of squabbling, with some lawmakers recommending the Medicare prescriptiondrug benefit program be delayed and billions of dollarsí worth of highway projects eliminated, and others saying, sure, cuts are needed, just not those cuts.

As the politicians fight, Lisa Hamler-Fugitt would like them to get real about the problems many Americans are facing, not just those of people directly affected by the hurricanes.

Hamler-Fugitt is executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks. The network of food pantries, soup kitchens and other relief sites her organization helps supply is being besieged by Ohioans who canít afford to buy enough food to feed themselves and their families.

Already, some semitrailers loaded with food that would have gone to Ohio are bypassing the state in order to help hurricane victims. Thereís just not enough aid to go around, says Hamler-Fugitt, who advocates increasing spending on a federal emergency food-assistance program from $140 million annually to $500 million.

During the quarter that ended June 30, 1.3 million low-income Ohioans sought out food from places like Second Harvest-aided food pantries, a 20 percent increase over a year ago. With gasoline prices and food prices up and wages not increasing in a still-struggling Ohio economy, Hamler-Fugitt doesnít expect a decrease in food needs anytime soon.

Indeed, sheís dreading the winter. She fears higher natural-gas prices could force some Ohioans to choose between going hungry and heating their homes.

On the other hand, some Republicans will assert that those tax cuts helped revive the national economy ó even if Ohio remains sluggish ó and failing to make them permanent will harm the economy in the long run. A conservative group of Republican lawmakers last week came out with their own series of cuts. They include saving $30 billion by delaying the Medicare drug benefit by a year and $25 billion by eliminating pet highway-bill projects, as well as billions more they say could be culled from Medicaid by making the health-care program for the poor more efficient and state-controlled.

But Robert Greenstein, head of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, says the annual cost of the 2001 and 2003 Bush-backed tax cuts exceeds the total cost of paying for Katrina relief and recovery efforts. He charges the conservative GOP spending cuts unfairly target the less-well-off while maintaining tax cuts that in large part benefit the wealthy.

Whatís going to happen? Probably a combination of some spending cuts and not extending some tax cuts, several Republican sources on Capitol Hill speculated last week.

As lawmakers consider balancing tax cuts and spending cuts, Hamler-Fugitt implores them to choose carefully, especially when it comes to programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.

"We need to be systematic and donít cut from the bottom," she said. "We canít cut from safety-net programs that are already pretty tattered. Consider letting the tax cuts expire. This is about shared sacrifice."

Jonathan Riskind is chief of The Dispatch Washington bureau. [email protected] 

Copyright © 2005, The Columbus Dispatch


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