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A new twist to your tax bill?

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"This is the brightest of times," says Tom Wright, executive director of Americans for Fair Taxation. "The opportunity has never been better."

At this Houston-based group, Mr. Wright has spent 14 years and $22 million in research urging that the sales tax replace all current federal taxes - payroll taxes as well as income taxes. Collection would be done by the states, which already have systems to reap state sales taxes. The Internal Revenue Service would become redundant.

A bill that would switch federal taxation to a national sales tax (H.R. 25) has 57 cosponsors in the House, he notes. "In any stand-up fight in the grass roots, we always win," he says.

Yet most observers doubt it could pass Congress. It would engender "intense public opposition and questionable economic benefits," holds David Malpass, chief economist of Bear Stearns, a Wall Street investment firm.

Opposition is already building. In September, the Democratic staff of the tax-writing House Committee on Ways and Means issued a report attacking the "radical restructuring plan."

Critics charge that a national sales tax would be regressive, placing more of the tax burden on the middle class and shrinking it for the rich. Mr. McIntyre estimates it would saddle middle-and low-income families with average tax increases of $3,000 to $4,000 a year.

But Mr. Wright counters that his plan includes a rebate system, which in effect allows each household tax-free spending up to the poverty level. Above that, families would be taxed on how much they consume in goods and services, including almost everything except education expenses, contributions and dues to charitable groups, and used goods.

Only big spenders would pay the maximum 23 percent rate, he says.

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