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BROWN'S TAX PLAN CONTROVERSIAL

Presidential candidate Jerry Brown, former governor of California, Catholic seminarian and student of Zen Buddhism, is thought to be a bit eccentric.

Yet Brown has done surprisingly well on the campaign trail, winning the Colorado primary and finishing a strong second to Bill Clinton in Michigan. With a modest war chest and a few dozen volunteers, he strikes a responsive chord with voters who don't like the old politics of lobbyists, pressure groups and tax breaks.Now that Paul Tsongas has quit the race, Brown is likely to get more attention in states where primaries have not yet been held.

The economic centerpiece of Brown's new-politics campaign is a flat-rate tax plan - a "silver bullet," he calls it - that would take income from all sources, subtract charitable contributions, mortgage interest payments and rent, subtract Social Security and unemployment benefits and tax the rest at 13 percent.

Gone would be the graduated income tax, with its 15, 28 and 31 percent rates and its numerous exemptions, deductions and credits. Gone would be the Social Security tax, the estate tax and the federal gasoline tax. Only taxes on booze and cigarettes would be kept.

In addition, Brown would impose a 13 percent value-added tax, a kind of national sales tax, on businesses. The corporate income tax and other federal business taxes would be repealed.

"The major source of venality and graft will be eliminated," says Brown, "and the Byzantine strictures of the Internal Revenue Code made so simple that even a sixth-grader will understand them."

Reaction to Brown's plan from traditional Democrats has been predictably negative. Clinton says taxpayers would end up paying 26 percent, since the 13 percent value-added tax on business would be passed along to consumers.

Labor leaders and others who support progressive tax rates argue that a flat tax would favor the affluent. A 13 percent tax on a family earning $200,000 a year would be $26,000, but it would take a painful bite - $2,600 - from a family earning only $20,000 a year.

"Brown's plan would raise taxes on most families, while cutting them in half for the richest 1 percent," says Robert McIntyre, director of tax policy for Citizens for Tax Justice.

McIntyre says "an army of lawyers and accountants" would be needed to administer a national sales tax, known as VAT, and widely used in Europe.

Politically, such a tax would have a rough road. Most states have sales taxes and would resent federal competition. Besides, sales taxes tend to be regressive - they fall most heavily on low-income people.

Brown's income tax plan has its flaws, too. One example: A family of eight would pay the same tax as a family of two, since neither family would be able to claim personal exemptions.

But the proposal for a flat-rate tax is not as unfair as it sounds. Many taxpayers are convinced that wealthy Americans avoid taxes by hiring financial experts who find ways to shelter income.

A government worker told me the other day she likes the flat-tax idea because so much money at the top is being sheltered from taxation. Right or wrong, she thinks Jerry Brown is onto something.