MILWAUKEE -- Former Gov. Jerry Brown defended his controversial proposal for a flat tax on income last night as "a fantastic idea that has been stigmatized by phony statistics" offered by critics, including Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Mr. Clinton, in the course of a 90-minute town-meeting format, charged that Mr. Brown's plan was a "regressive" idea that would hurt the poor and middle class, benefit the rich, increase the federal budget by $180 billion and "drive a stake in the heart of Social Security."
Mr. Brown called Mr. Clinton's assessment "a total diatribe" by a defender of "a corrupt tax code" on which lobbyists, accountants and lawyers have thrived at the expense of the taxpayers. He said that his flat tax, by eliminating virtually all other taxes, would benefit the poor and middle class and shift more of the tax burden to the well-off.
The exchange highlighted an issue that is getting increasing attention since Mr. Brown's upset victory over Mr. Clinton in the Connecticut primary last Tuesday. With Mr. Brown now being taken more seriously, his own proposals are facing more scrutiny, with help from Mr. Clinton, who sharply criticized the flat-tax proposal in television ads in Connecticut last weekend.
The issue is becoming a major point of contention in Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York, all states that allocate delegates on April 7. All three have high state and local taxes whose deductibility would be wiped out by the flat tax proposal.
Asked about prospects of raising taxes, Mr. Clinton said he would reduce defense spending, consumption and various administrative costs before asking for new taxes, except for adding taxes on upper-income individuals whose income has gone up under the Reagan-Bush years.
Mr. Brown said he would not "raise a penny of taxes" as long the existing code was in force. By simplifying it as he recommends with theflat tax, he said, it would be both understandable and stable enough to encourage more long-term investment by business.
A more dramatic exchange took place over another issue -- each candidate's response to the AIDS threat. A couple who identified themselves as being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus asked both candidates if they would take the HIV test as gesture of personal leadership as president.
The questioner mentioned that Mr. Brown was a bachelor and that Mr. Clinton had had "serious allegations in your past that may or may not be true." Both men said they would be willing to take the test.