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Tax-Credit Overload

President clinton's proposal for a $1,000 tax credit for Americans needing long-term care, or for the relatives providing it, is one of those ideas that sound good in isolation. After a bit more thought, however, some of the luster disappears.

It's hard to argue with the desire to assist some of the 5 million Americans needing long-term health care. It's also useful to support family members providing such care, which is a less expensive and often higher-quality alternative to nursing homes.

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The White House would pay for the plan, which would cost $5.5 billion over five years, by closing "corporate welfare" loopholes in existing tax law. Give the president credit for trying to develop a proposal meant to appeal to the Republican Congress.

But how does this proposal fit with budget and tax-simplification goals and with Mr. Clinton's other spending ideas? The president is set to call again for tax credits on school-construction bonds and child care, as well as anti-smoking programs and a defense-spending increase.

One clear problem: a piecemeal approach to the tax code. Those 1040 forms are long and confusing because of the bewildering array of credits and deductions Washington doles out to favored (and often deserving) groups.

More effective would be an overall simplification and flattening of the tax code, leaving taxpayers with more of their paycheck in the first place. That could be paid for with further reductions in the federal government, including ending programs - and even whole departments - that have outlived their usefulness.

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