By Jeninne K. Lee-St. John

WASHINGTON - With this year's tax returns happily behind them, South Shore small-business owners can turn their attention to whether they'll owe the IRS less next year.

President Bush yesterday called for Congress to pass a $550 billion tax cut package that would include lower individual tax rates. Many small businesses file individual rather than corporate tax returns.

Bush said his plan would cut the taxes of 23 million small-business owners by an average of $2,042 in the first year.

Bush originally requested $720 billion, but the Senate slashed it to $350 billion and the House approved a $550 billion version of the plan. The Senate and House are likely to work on a compromise when they return from recess on April 28.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., last week introduced a bill designed to stimulate small businesses and simplify their taxes.

But small-business owners south of Boston said that while they would welcome a little more cash in their pockets, they were wary of the effect any tax cut would have on their businesses and the economy in general.

Quincy lawyer Francis Kenneally said he generally supports a tax cut as long as it provides the stimulus to the economy the president promises.

In Randolph, Carol Riman, who owns the Frame Man, said, "Unfortunately, everyone wants to tax businesses because they think businesses have the money. But they don't understand that if people aren't spending money, businesses don't have money."

Riman said she would spend any extra money on buying more equipment for her shop. Kenneally said, "Maybe I'd get an extra software package." In fact, the tax relief proposed by Bush wouldn't get a business owner much more than that, some said.

"Two thousand dollars to a business is not enough to hire another employee," said Veva Johnson, a Weymouth bookkeeper who said she couldn't afford to replace an employee she lost this year. Johnson noted an increase in cash flow problems among her 30 or so small-business clients.

"I can see that the extra money would go to reducing credit card debt," Johnson said. She said a plan to help small-business owners save for their retirement should be the government's more pressing concern.

Kenneally said the government might be touting the wrong efforts. "In my opinion, if a candidate were to have a focus group of small-business owners, the issue of the cost of health insurance would be as high as the issue of tax cuts," he said.

A tax cut might translate into increased shopping by some customers.

"If my customers had more money, they'd spend it," said Rosemary Verg of Scituate's Verg Jewelers. "A couple of hundred dollars is not something they'd put in the bank, it's something they'd spend. And they'd spend it on something to make them feel good."

But Kenneally said the elation of retail therapy might not last if the economy doesn't improve.

"Politically, the president should be worried about buyer's remorse," he said.