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What Would You Do With $117 Billion?

February 1, 1999

Dick Clark’s ``$100,000 Pyramid″? Amateur.

Cash-swollen Powerball jackpots? Mere chump change.

Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes? Clear ’em out. Time to play in the big leagues.

This isn’t hundreds of millions of dollars we’re talking. It’s not billions, or even tens of billions. No, President Clinton’s 2000 budget estimates _ get this _ $117 billion in surpluses, and he has ideas on how he wants to use it.

Sure he does. What American wouldn’t?

Tom Spillane certainly did.

``Give it to me,″ a helpful (if hopeful) Spillane, 30, a construction worker from Melrose, Mass., suggested Monday.

Ideas run the gamut. Americans interviewed by The Associated Press had suggestions as varied as their fingerprints _ from social security to tax cuts to funding homeless and battered-women programs to investing it in the stock market.

``We could spend that money on schools, from elementary to the college level,″ said Myrla Garcia, 23, a law firm courier who works in downtown El Paso, Texas.

``They could give the veterans back some of their benefits,″ said Wes Backman, of Wilston, N.D. ``It seems like every time we turn around, they’re taking some away.″

``If it’s a surplus, then it’s my money that they’re trying to spend,″ said Ron Caldwell, 57, of Ohio, visiting his sister in Charleston, W.Va. ``So I would give a tax cut to everyone and spend the rest on health care.″

Clinton’s projected $117 billion surplus for 2000 follows a projected $79 billion surplus this year and an actual $69 billion surplus in 1998, the first year the government finished in the black in 29 years.

The president wants to use 62 percent of the projected surpluses over the next 15 years to shore up Social Security. The rest, he proposes, should go to support Medicare, provide additional spending for the military and domestic programs and set up new retirement accounts. Republicans concur on Social Security but also advocate aggressive tax cuts.

Admittedly, $117 billion is not the easiest number to comprehend, so consider this. It could:

_buy a 1999 Lexus RX300 for every one of Los Angeles’ 3.5 million residents.

_send every American to the next Super Bowl with a $400 ticket _ if there were a stadium that big.

_buy an $11.5 million, 13-room apartment on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue for each of the 10,000 citizens of Monessen, an industrial town in western Pennsylvania.

_supply a copy of Stephen King’s new $28 horror novel, ``Bag of Bones,″ for everyone in both Asia and Europe.

Or put it another way: Last year’s Powerball jackpot of $295.7 million, the largest ever, was just 1/400th of the projected surplus.

Some advocated the fiscally safe route.

``Pay off our debts,″ said Jim Mahood, 38, of Morgantown, W.Va., during a midmorning supermarket stop. ``If I was in debt as much as our government is and I had a few dollars in my pocket, I wouldn’t be spending it.″

``Funny how that works for the rest of us, isn’t it?″ agreed his wife, Tanana, 38. ``I would store it up for all of us old Baby Boomers. Social Security is going to need an infusion real soon.″

Social Security seemed to resonate, among both aging Baby Boomers and younger Americans who want to make sure ``people can have to something to retire on after we’ve worked a zillion years,″ said Kris Shropshire, 21, a medical lab courier in Cheyenne, Wyo.

``Fix the roads or help the elderly,″ said Steve Harper, 37, also of Morgantown. ``It’s a shame. Old people have nothing.″

Bundling bouquets of irises and tiger lilies in downtown Los Angeles, flower cart vendor Ann Chatta wasn’t too optimistic. She said the government should hang on to its money for as long as it can.

``They’re going to keep it away from us anyway,″ she said. ``I just hope there’s some left in Social Security when I retire.″

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