As the supercommittee considers recommendations for cutting the federal deficit, is it paying attention to the people who pay the taxes?

On Nov. 8, Election Day, volunteers conducted “Penny Polls” at 11 polling locations in Maine, asking more than 2,000 people who had just voted: “How would you like your federal tax dollars to be spent?”

Voters’ top priorities: Education (20 percent), health care (18 percent) and veterans’ benefits (13 percent).

Towns and cities represented included Portland, Lewiston, Bowdoinham, Belgrade, Wilton, Skowhegan, Belfast, Monroe, Old Town, Orland and Southwest Harbor.

The results were surprisingly at odds with the way Congress spends taxpayer dollars, but consistent with previous polls. The last such poll was in May and June, where 1,500 participants in every Maine county expressed their preferences.

Those polled were given 10 pennies, each representing 10 percent of income taxes they pay to the federal government’s discretionary budget. They saw 10 jars labeled with broad categories of federal tax spending. They were not coached on how to respond; they were simply asked to decide how they would like to see their federal tax dollars spent.

Volunteers did not identify their own preferences nor display material from Maine’s Bring Our War $$ Home campaign (www.bringourwardollarshome.org).

“Education” drew the most spending, with 2,075 people allocating 19.5 percent of their pennies, followed by “health care,” with 17.5 percent, and “veterans’ benefits,” with 13.2 percent. “Food/agriculture” was at 9.8 percent, “environment/science” at 9.3 percent, “transportation” at 7.7 percent, and “interest on the national debt” at 7.5 percent. Bringing up the rear were “defense” at 6.5 percent, “housing/urban development” at 6.4 percent, and “general government” at 2.7 percent.

According to the National Priorities Project’s calculations of the 2010 budget for U.S. discretionary spending, where individual income taxes actually go, “defense” receives 58 percent of every tax dollar. “Housing and urban development,” “environment/science,” and “general government” (Treasury, Justice, Congress and the White House), each receives 6 percent. “Health care” gets 5 percent; “education” and “veterans’ benefits” each gets 5 percent, “transportation” gets 3 percent and “food/agriculture” gets 1 percent. Two categories were not included in the Penny Polls: “international affairs,” allotted 4 percent, and “income’security/labor,” allotted 3 percent.

While there are various ways of calculating the discretionary budget the supercommittee is charged with reducing, most agree that the Pentagon portion of that budget is in excess of 50 percent for 2010. This portion does not include the cost of operating the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The contrast between how taxpayers want their money spent and how Congress spends it could hardly be more dramatic. The Pentagon receives about nine times more than what taxpayers think it should have, while education and health care get less than one-third of what taxpayers advocate, and veterans’ benefits less than half. Transportation and food/agriculture both get short-changed as well.

Congress and the people who pay the tab are on different wave lengths. It is clear that, if Congress makes cuts, they should be primarily, if not entirely, in the Pentagon portion of the budget.

Why are spending priorities between the public and Congress so different? Are people in Congress that removed from the realities of daily life that they don’t worry about education, health care, veterans benefits and other issues important to the rest of us?

Are they under the thumb of lobbyists, especially those representing military contractors, and wealthy donors to their campaigns? Is there a culture of militarism — the necessity of wars, foreign bases and a huge military — that only lives in corporate board rooms and in Congress?

The huge gap between what the public wants and what Congress allocates brings up questions about how much of a democracy we have in this country.

The current Occupy Wall Street movement and its local offshoots point out how our democracy is slipping away, as members of Congress get richer and become part of the 1 percent, rather than part of the 99 percent.

Our democracy is in crisis; millions have lost faith in a system that claims to represent them. Unless Congress listens to and reflects the wishes of the vast majority in this country, popular support of our economic system, tax system, and government will continue to erode.

 

Larry Dansinger of Monroe (525-7776 or [email protected])is a volunteer with the Bring Our War $$ Home campaign. Lisa Savage of Solon (399-7623 or [email protected]) is Codepink Maine local coordinator, co-coordinator of the Bring Our War $$ Home campaign and supports the Occupy movement.