Tax-cutting may be getting out of hand in this country these days.
That's the conclusion of a growing number of tax experts in the wake of this past year's congressional tax-cutting spree and the recent flap over Proposition 13.
It's not the big across-the-board tax cuts they're complaining about - measures such as the omnibus tax-cut bill President Carter signed Wednesday which reduce taxes generally for virtually all Americans.
Most experts still think the nation need more of these general tax reductions - to ease the burden of inflation and encourage more business investment.
Rather, it's the costly tendency nowadays to tout new tax breaks willy-nilly as solution for specific problems. College is expensive, so propose a tuition tax credit. Airlines are in trouble, so give them tax relief.
The list goes on and on.
As some analysts see it, the trend is sort of the mirror-image of the 1960s. The philosophy then was, if you have problem, just throw money at it. Now it's the same, except we throw tax breaks at it instead.
The development has come partly in response to the growing middle-income protest. The spending programs of the 1960s were aimed primarily at the poor. But with a tax break, anyone can take advantage of the benefits.
The difficulty is, the volume is such that the tax breaks are beginning to take on some of the same problems as last decade's spending programs. Once they're enacted, it's almost impossible to repeal them.
Moreover, the cost is easier to hide than in the case of spending programs. One Congress okays a tax break, the revenue loss doesn't show up as a line-item expenditure. And there's not regular procedure for periodic review.
As a result, some fiscal experts fear that tax breaks may be becoming a new set of "uncontrollables" that will make it even more difficult for budgetmakers to hold down the deficit - just as some spending programs do now.
To some analysts, the problem is that not enough Americans have gotten around to viewing these narrow-interest tax breaks as spending measures - which essentially is what they really are.
In this case, the government is "spending" its tax revenues, rather than its outlays. But the impact is the same.
Conservatives blanch at this kind of analogy, arguing that providing tax breaks can't be "spending" because the tax money "belongs to the people, not the government," and "the people deserve to get some of it back."
That's high-sounding rhetoric, but if you want, you can apply it to grants programs as well: Aid to education isn't spending because the grant money by rights "belongs to the people," and they "deserve" to have it parceled back.
The fact is, however, that it doesn't matter much in budgetary terms whether you spend $4 billion for federal aid to education or cut revenues by that same amount to provide a tuition tax credit. Both bloat the deficit $4 billion.
Put a number of these small tax breaks together, and the tab quickly swalls . As the late Sen. Everett McK. Dirksen (R-I11.) was fond of saying, "a billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon it adds up to big money."
Indeed, it may even add some perspective to view every tax-break proposal as if it were a spending program. You say you favor a $2 billion writeoff for college costs? Would you support it if it were $2 billion in scholarship aid?
Admittedly, there are some genuine differences between a tax break and a government grant. The tax break goes directly to the individual or corporation, while grants are channeled - presumably more wastefully - through states and localities.
But there's waste in the tax-break approach as well. The tuition tax credit, for example, would be available to those making $100,000 a year or more - who presumably don't need it - as much as do middle-income taxpayers.
More ominously, once Congress votes a tax break that government doesn't have to account for the annual revenue loss anymore - as it does in the case of spending measures. The money just disappears forever.
And it's more difficult politically to trim back a tax break once it's no longer needed. It's one thing for a politician to be for cutting spending back. But no one wants to campaign for repealing a tax break.
There have been some efforts in Congress recently to get a better handle on the rise in the number of narrow-interest tax-breaks.
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) mustered a respectable showing last session for a proposal that would require Congress to review these tax breaks periodically. But he feel short of a majority.
And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has announced plans to try to change the Senate's rules next January to have all tax-break proposals referred to individual legislative committee, and then approved by Senate Finance. But Kennedy is unlikely to succeed.
The point isn't that all narrow-interest tax breaks are bad, or even that they aren't preferable to grants at times.
But a growing number of analysts are beginning to believe it's time to get a handle on them, if only to avoid repeating the excesses of the 1960s - this time with tax breaks, instead of spending programs.