Just when you thought the end of campaign season made TV and radio safe from the political ad blitz -- they're back.
A new wave of commercials for something called the "fair tax" has been hitting Buffalo media as part of a national campaign to replace the federal income tax with a 23 percent national sales tax. Though the concept's sponsors face plenty of obstacles, they think their initial effort is raising awareness about an idea whose time has come.
"We have just one issue: is there a fairer and more efficient way to collect federal taxes?" said Laura Dale, vice president of Americans for Fair Taxation, sponsor of the new ads. "What we're talking about allows people to take home everything they earn. It gives people -- and not government -- control of their income."
The new ads may prove just the beginning of major efforts to change the way Americans pay their taxes. After candidate Steve Forbes first floated the concept of replacing the income tax with a "flat tax" during the 1996 presidential campaign, it appears reform of the system now holds an important spot on the national agenda.
Indeed, Forbes is preparing for another presidential run with a campaign again based on that premise.
"I think support is growing for both a major tax cut and genuine simplification," he said last week. "Why should we be spending 5 billion hours filling out those silly forms?"
Forbes said in a telephone interview that unlike his presidential campaign of just 2 1/2 years ago, ideas like the flat tax are no longer viewed as radical. "Initially, every other candidate was pooh-poohing it," he said. "Now that's shifting."
That was reflected, the publisher of Forbes Magazine said, in last summer's House passage of a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, calling for abolition of the current income tax system -- a bill that also gained strong support in the Senate before dying.
Now, as he contemplates another run for the White House, Forbes says some type of tax simplification proposal will be advanced by every candidate -- Republican and Democrat.
"In the year 2000, I guarantee you that every presidential candidate will have some version of tax simplification," he said.
Whether it's the sales tax or the flat tax, many predict that such revolutionary ideas will get more than passing looks in 1999. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, is expected to make a major push for some kind of national sales tax, and Republicans in general are embracing the concept.
"There are many different ideas on how to repeal the tax code, but the bottom line is that Republicans want to make April 15 just like any other day," said Trent Duffy, deputy spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee. "You're seeing in this campaign something that reflects grass-roots support."
Business is putting its clout behind the effort, too. Cleta Mitchell, a Washington attorney carrying the tax-reform banner for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said reform would lift a tremendous burden from both business and government -- since so much time and effort is now devoted to obtaining tax breaks for every conceivable business.
"Over two-thirds of lobbying disclosures reveal that business and industry spend their money on trying to influence Congress on the tax code," she said. "You couple that with all the money spent on CPAs and attorneys, and it means that if you vastly improve the tax system, you release all that intellectual power to improving and expanding business."
Americans for Fair Taxation, Ms. Dale's Houston-based organization, was launched in 1995 by Texas business figures looking for reform of the tax system. Since then, they have developed a plan they say is backed by several leading economists -- and are now selling their idea. The pitch is for a system that taxes Americans on what they spend, not what they earn.
As part of their effort, the group has launched a national radio campaign and a television effort in 27 markets -- including Buffalo. Grand Island resident Jerry Reiter, a one-time County Legislature candidate, has been active since March as one of three national field coordinators for the group. He has helped organize more than 250 chapters of Americans for Fair Taxation around the country.
"It's a $3 million national campaign that runs from Election Day to Jan. 1," Reiter said. "And we're targeting New York because Sen. (Daniel Patrick) Moynihan sits on a committee that can influence the legislation."
The concept has no national sponsor in Washington, but Ms. Dale expects that to change when the new Congress convenes in January. If it finally does arrive at the Capitol, she sees a national debate around these sales tax highlights:
Repealing the 16th Amendment, and with it the income tax, payroll taxes (including Social Security and Medicare), and virtually all other taxes.
Imposing a 23 percent tax-inclusive rate on the purchase of new goods and services.
Providing a universal rebate equal to the sales tax paid on essential goods and services to ensure against taxation of necessities, with no tax on business purchases.
Elimination of all income tax forms, the April 15 tax deadline and the IRS itself. The sales tax would simply be collected by retailers and forwarded to the government in the same manner as state sales taxes.
The backers claim the new system would shield those below the poverty level from taxes, while actually providing for lower taxes, too. That's because corporations now pass on to consumers the costs of paying the income tax, the payroll tax and other compliance costs.
"The current income tax system inflates costs by an average of 20 percent," Ms. Dale said. "So prices will fall rapidly and dramatically. When you are no longer obligated to pay all these taxes, prices are going to go down."
Their idea differs from Forbes' proposal for a flat tax, built around a universal 17 percent tax rate with "generous family exemptions." Forbes continues to tout the appealing idea of filling out a postcard come tax time, while allowing anyone who wants to continue under the old system to do so.
"The flat tax will be an easier system for us to move into, though either a flat tax or a national sales tax is preferable to what we have now," he said.
Not everybody buys into the concept. Lewis Mandell, dean of the School of Management at the University at Buffalo, agrees that the end of the IRS, eliminating the dreaded April 15 deadline and abolishing tax forms forever sound appealing.
"The single biggest advantage is that it's the easiest and least expensive tax to collect," he said of the national sales tax. "And it implies a certain degree of fairness, too, because it would be very hard to avoid paying taxes."
But Mandell says even with the safeguards proposed, such a simple concept has never succeeded because its outcome is also simple: it's not equitable.
"Richer people are able to save more and spend a far lower part of their income than poor people," he said. "It's a regressive tax because poor people end up spending all the money they make, while rich people spend less (as a proportion of their income)."
That's why, for all its complexity and frustration, Mandell said, the income tax system has survived for as long as it has. And while the Texas group would provide rebates to those under the poverty level, Mandell argues the tax also hurts the "working poor" -- the thousands of Buffalonians who struggle to support families on $20,000 per year.
"Does the idea sound good to me? Sure," he said. "If I didn't have a social conscience I'd vote for it. I just don't think it's very fair."
For all their money and slick ads, the campaign for a national sales tax may not yet be ready for the big time. Cleta Mitchell, the Washington attorney, says the group is "very, very politically naive" because it has not yet figured how to translate concepts into substance. And that, she says, may take someone of Forbes' stature to latch onto the idea.
"The only way you'll see this issue at the top of the political agenda is to make it at the top of a presidential candidate's agenda," she said. "A candidate has to espouse it."
That could happen. Forbes says no presidential candidate can successfully compete in 2000 without embracing some form of the concept. Even Democrats such as Bill Bradley, Richard Gephardt and Bob Kerrey will present their own tax reform plans -- though he calls them inferior.
And all of this means that no matter who becomes president, some major tax reforms lie on the horizon.
"In the next five years you will see it -- absolutely," Forbes said. "It is very exciting."