Remarks at a Senior Citizens Forum on Tax Reform in Tampa, Florida

September 12, 1985

The President. Thank you, Paula. Ladies and gentlemen here on the dais and you ladies and gentlemen, before I begin my formal remarks today, I have something that I think many citizens of Florida will be glad to hear. As they say in the news business, ``This is just in.''

I am today making eligible for Federal assistance those parts of your State which suffered so much at the hands of Hurricane Elena -- those are Franklin, Levy, Pinellas, and Manatee Counties. And the entire Nation watched with you as this disastrous storm made not one, but two passes at the Florida Gulf course. And I want to assure you that we in Washington -- did I say -- you know, gulf stream came out -- or gulf coast came out like a golf course -- [laughter] -- believe me, that was a Freudian slip. [Laughter] But I want to assure you that we in Washington will work closely with your State officials, with Senator Hawkins, and your congressional delegation to see that every resource of the Federal Government that's available under law is placed at your disposal. We want those who face the brunt of this storm to have a helping hand to begin rebuilding their homes, their businesses, and their lives.

Now, it's great to be back in Florida, and I am going to dare to say the Sunshine State even though it's a little cloudy out there. I'm happy to have a few kids my own age to play with. [Laughter] May I say what an honor it is to be here with your fine Senator, Paula Hawkins; your Congressmen -- Sam Gibbons, Mike Bilirakis, Andy Ireland, and Bill Young; and your mayor, Bob Martinez.

You know, last fall I fought the last election of my political life, and for the rest of my time in this high office, there can be no doubt that all decisions will be guided by a single question: What's best for America? I've tried to do that all along, but no one really believes it of a politician. But now they can't doubt it because I am not going any place. [Laughter] My friends, in this regard you and I have a lot in common. We've lived out the great part of our lives. As we look to the past, our hearts are filled with gratitude for the blessings that this great nation has bestowed upon us. And as we look to the future, we want our children and grandchildren to know the same freedom and opportunity, the same greatness of spirit that we as Americans have cherished.

Of course, we intend to live the rest of our own lives to the fullest, but more and more, we do find ourselves asking what's best for the next generation? What's best for America? In this spirit, I'd like to talk to you about a subject of vital importance for the decades ahead. I know you have already heard some specifics about it -- tax reform -- and I'll hope that I won't replow ground that's already been plowed here today.

But today our administration, as you know, has before the Congress a plan for a dramatic tax reform. It's a reform that would make it easier for Americans to keep more of their own earnings; that would create new jobs by fostering economic growth; and that would make it easier for our children and grandchildren to raise families of their own. Any reform this major is bound to have its opponents, and our tax plan is no exception. The special interests have already dug in around Capitol Hill and are prepared to do battle. They want to preserve certain tax shelters and loopholes and make the rest of us pay for the special treatment that they and their big-money clients receive.

Well, if we're going to out-flank those special interests and get this tax reform passed, a certain senior citizen is going to need your help. He's a fellow named Ronald Reagan. So, with your permission, I'd like to present our case. I want you to know what's wrong with the present system, what our new plan would do, and how each of you can lend a hand. As I've traveled the country to talk about taxes, I've discovered that the American people have a few strong opinions of their own. Let me ask you here in Florida a question that I've asked elsewhere, and I wonder if you'd answer loud enough so all of those way back in Washington can hear you. My friends, don't you believe that our taxes are too high, too complicated, and utterly unfair?

Audience. Yes! [Applause]

The President. Thank you. Looks as though I came to the right place. [Laughter] The tax code we're saddled with today is the result of almost 75 years of political wheeling and dealing. When the income tax first became law back in 1913, the tax code amounted to just about 15 pages -- I may have been the only 2-year-old to read it cover to cover. [Laughter] Well, today the tax code runs to 4 volumes and more than 4,000 pages. And one standard interpretation of the code -- you know that isn't enough, just the code; you got to have it explained -- and that explanation includes 18 volumes, weighs 87 pounds, and takes up 6 feet of shelf space. Just think of it -- the Bible contains all the wisdom we need to lead our lives and is perhaps 2 inches thick. You know, the complete works of William Shakespeare -- plays and poetry that have enriched life in the English-speaking world for almost four centuries -- can be bound in a single volume. But just to explain the tax code to the United States -- 18 volumes and 6 feet of shelf space -- I think you'll agree it's not exactly a major contribution to Western civilization.

The sheer length and complexity of the tax code is bad enough, but the unfairness is worse. Every year many Americans pay more in Federal income taxes than the giant corporations they work for. Some individuals go on so-called educational ocean cruises or purchase sky boxes at sports arenas and write them off as business expense. Now, I've been preaching the merits of free enterprise for years. Business people provide jobs and create wealth; I have nothing against them -- on the contrary, they have my heartfelt admiration. What I am against is a tax system that allows some to take perfectly legal deductions that by any standards of fairness are an outrage. I think you agree with that.

For individuals, the current system means you have to pay just too darned much. Maybe one of your grandchildren just got a job and showed you his or her paycheck. One box shows the actual salary -- not a bad figure. Then there are all the boxes that show taxes taken out -- Federal tax, State tax, and on and on and on. And when you get to the box that shows take-home pay, it's a mere fraction of the starting figure. It's like one of those horror movies from the 1950's -- ``The Incredible Shrinking Paycheck.'' [Laughter] And I'm sure your grandchild might wonder who he or she is working for -- for him or herself or the Government. I still remember -- the first one in my family -- a daughter, she'd been with that kind of campus liberalism at the time that was going around. Then she brought home her first paycheck. She was pale and horror stricken. And I tried to explain to her that's what her old man had been making speeches about all these years. [Laughter] Well, you know, we can tell our children and grandchildren that there was a time when taxes were lower and simpler, and it doesn't stop there. If your grandchildren work hard and get a raise, they'll find out now that they get to keep less of each dollar.

When it comes to families, the present system is shameful. The standard deduction for married couples and the exemption for dependents -- so crucial to household finances -- were never big to begin with. After the inflation of the seventies, they're downright puny. The tax code has, in effect, made it more and more expensive to care for older parents or to give children the good upbringing and education they deserve.

Today's tax system means that precious resources -- often scarce investment capital -- are spent on useless tax dodges. It means business districts that look like ghost towns, with huge, unfinished skyscrapers constructed largely for tax reasons -- they're called see-through buildings because they haven't finished them and put in the partitions. It means punishment instead of rewards for hard work and achievement; growing pressure on the American family; and high taxes for everybody who can't afford a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. Those see-through buildings -- I should have finished and pointed out -- they're not finished on purpose, because the purpose in building them were the tax deductions that were made available from that which far exceeded any reason for going after a profit.

You know, the tax code sort of reminds me of Jack Benny's old Maxwell car -- it puffs and wheezes and squeaks and squeals and gives everybody a lousy ride. I seem to remember one time when the Maxwell car on the Benny show ran out of gas and Jack Benny's line was, ``I don't understand. The gas gauge reads full.'' And then it was Rochester, his sidekick there on the show, who answered and says, ``Well, it's painted that way.'' [Laughter] Well, my friends, today we have a Maxwell car tax code. It's painted fair and simple, but in truth, it's unfair, unjust, and complicated to the point of absurdity. Isn't it time we junked that old heap and got ourselves a better model that's brand new? Now, our tax plan calls for us to close loopholes and make sure that everybody pays his fair share. But this, then, enables us to lower the rates across the board for everyone.

Permit me to say a few words right here about Social Security. I've been accused -- oh, boy, have I been accused -- of wanting to tamper with Social Security more times than I've had birthdays, and that's getting to be a pretty big number. [Laughter] Well, it just ain't so. As long ago as the 1976 campaign -- I was saying then that correcting the problems of Social Security must be done without reducing the benefits for those who are receiving them. I mention this, first of all, because I think all of us would like to know that nothing in our tax plan will affect your Social Security checks in any way -- period.

Now, to return to our tax plan, the corporate tax rate will come down. The capital gains tax will come down, spurring new investment. On personal income taxes, we'll replace the present tangle of 14 brackets and a top rate of 50 percent with just 3 brackets at 15, 25, and 35 percent. And for the majority of Americans, personal taxes will not only be simpler but lower. With these lower personal, corporate, and capital gains tax rates, new jobs will be created, new technologies will be developed, and living standards will rise. Once again, our country will be a land of true opportunity. And, my friends, isn't that what we want for our children and grandchildren? For families, our plan will raise the standard deduction for married couples to $4,000 and nearly double the personal exemption of $2,000. And with these measures in place, a family of four won't pay one penny in Federal tax on the first $12,000 of its earnings. Won't it be good news when our tax code stops punishing families and starts giving them a helping hand?

Now, last weekend on television, a prominent national figure said that our tax plan would hurt the middle class while it benefited the rich. I finished watching that show on the ceiling, looking down. Well, if I may use a word that people our age will remember, ``balderdash.'' [Laughter] Now, there are some earthier words, but balderdash will have to do. [Laughter] As I've said, we intend to cut personal income tax rates and raise deductions and exemptions for the family. This means that every group in America will be better off, and anybody who tells you otherwise just doesn't understand or deliberately doesn't want to understand.

Regarding our proposal to eliminate the deduction for State and local taxes, it turns out that there's an important new study by the comptroller of the State of New York, which ranks certainly near the top among States with regard to tax rates. That study concludes that under our proposal, taxpayers in that State would save $588 million a year. And that's the point. If individuals are better off, States are better off, and America is better off.

And our fair share tax plan includes relief for millions of the needy. Under our plan, the poor and all blind, elderly, or disabled Americans living in poverty or at that poverty level would be completely removed from the Federal tax rolls -- not one penny of tax to pay. The fact is that years of runaway government spending in the seventies produced an inflationary binge that threw millions into poverty. You remember the Government's War on Poverty? Well, sad to announce, poverty won. Then, our first tax cut took effect and ignited one of the strongest economic expansions in American history. Between 1983 and 1984, poverty dropped faster and farther than it had in more than a decade. Among us senior citizens alone, more than 400,000 have been lifted out of poverty. Now, this experience proves beyond all doubt that prosperity isn't created by big government. Prosperity is created by lower taxes, less government, and more economic growth. You know, I mentioned a moment ago three tax brackets. I think what I've just described to you indicates there are really going to be in our plan four tax brackets -- 15, 25, 35, and zero.

But we can make the tax plan, this fair tax plan, a reality. But I'll need your help. Please spread the word among your neighbors and, most important, make your views known in Washington. Tell folks up there that it's time for a change, and let them know that you support and want America's tax plan. You know, you and I have lived a good part of the history of this nation. And many of you, no doubt, are the sons and daughters of immigrants who came to this country with nothing. Many, like me, were getting our first jobs during the hard times of the Great Depression -- began in '29 and in the early '30s, grew worse. All of us have seen what hard work and determination can accomplish. All of us know from firsthand experience just how much economic growth means to this nation.

To return to my original question of what's best for America, you and I know the answer. It's freedom and opportunity. And today we have a chance to give these precious gifts to the next generation, to our children and grandchildren. Let us work to give them the fair share tax. And together, my friends, I know that we can succeed.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 11:44 a.m. at the Curtis Hixon Convention Center. He was introduced by Senator Paula Hawkins. The forum was sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform.