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Tax Revolt Still Revs

PASSAGE of a federal budget plan that includes substantial tax increases has been seen by some as a swerve from the tax revolt of the late '70s that helped usher Ronald Reagan into the White House. But while Congress and the president made the turn, did the public go along? Survey data indicate that most people in the United States are as disgruntled with taxes as ever. Polls taken early in 1990 showed 79 percent of Americans opposed to an income tax hike; 71 percent favored a freeze on government spending; 56 percent felt taxes have gone up since the Tax Reform Act of 1986. On average, Americans believe government wastes about half of every tax dollar it collects.

There's little reason to suspect those attitudes have changed much, or that tax resentments won't figure in next week's elections. Ballots in 11 states include initiatives to cap taxes, limit taxing authority, or roll back taxes. These proposals have become major campaign issues in some states, showing that the tax revolt still has steam.

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But that revolt, as an expression of Americans' skepticism about government, has some built-in brakes, too. Polls also uncover a willingness to see public spending maintained, or even increased, if it's clear where the money will go. Taxes perceived as directed at a specific need are often backed.

One survey indicated 67 percent of Americans opposed a cut in Social Security taxes, despite sharp increases in those levies. In another, 60 percent favored increased spending for domestic programs - indicating a awareness, perhaps, of pressing needs like better education and drug-abuse prevention.

So are Americans ready to accept the tax hikes engineered in Washington as necessary steps towards deficit reduction? That depends on whether they think their reps on Capitol Hill really went to the mat to reduce spending and waste - and that depends on which ``wasteful'' programs were being cut and how much they affect personal or local well-being.

Americans' ingrained suspicion of taxation often mystifies Europeans, whose tax loads are considerably heavier. It shouldn't. Americans simply hold different attitudes toward government - including a firm conviction that it doesn't have all the answers.

So when crises come up, at the national or local level, leadership is needed to convince people that sacrifice - yes, even higher taxes - may be needed. If such leadership falls short, the tax revolt is never far behind.

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