Maryland's ideal federal budget

What would the federal budget look like if Marylanders crafted it? A new survey reveals our spending wishes.

As members of the Maryland congressional delegation consider President Barack Obama's just-released proposed budget for FY2017, wouldn't it be great if they could hear what the citizens of Maryland think about the federal budget? A unique, new survey from Voice Of the People has made this possible.

A representative panel of 490 registered Maryland voters, called a "Citizen Cabinet," went through an online process in which they were presented the discretionary budget for FY2016 and sources of existing and possible revenue (including ones proposed by the president), and asked to craft their own budget. They were told about the deficit, and as they made up their budgets, they got constant feedback showing the impact of their changes relative to the deficit. The survey was developed by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland and was vetted with congressional staffers from both parties. The panel was recruited by Nielsen-Scarborough.

The results revealed some striking differences and similarities between president's budget and "the people's budget" of Maryland.

The biggest difference is that the majority of Marylanders go further than the president in cutting the deficit. If the president were to get all the changes he proposes — doubtful given the dynamics in Congress — he would reduce the deficit $113 billion for 2017. The majority of Marylanders surveyed, however, reduce the deficit more than twice as much: $267 billion, through a combination of $47 billion in spending cuts and $220 billion in revenue increases. While the president increases some spending items, Marylanders don't.

At the same time, Marylanders, like Congress, have substantial differences between Republicans and Democrats. Nonetheless, there is considerable common ground. Majorities of both parties converge on $7 billion of spending cuts, led by cuts to subsidies to agricultural corporations ($2 billion).

But the big money, when it comes to bipartisan agreement among Marylanders, is in the revenue increases both sides embrace totaling $79 billion.

Some of these are in the president's budget. While he is not entirely precise about how he plans to do so, the president proposes increasing tax revenues from the wealthy by $56 billion in 2017, growing to twice that amount by 2024. Among Marylanders a majority of both Republicans and Democrats favor a 5 percent increase in the income taxes on incomes over $200,000 and a 10 percent increase for incomes over $1 million, generating $49 billion — nearly matching Mr. Obama's proposed short term increase for 2017, but not his long-term one.

Large majorities from both parties also adopt two other ideas the president proposes. One is taxing carried interest as ordinary income (i.e. doing away with the hedge fund manager's tax break), generating $1.8 billion. Another is requiring large financial institutions to pay a small fee on their uninsured debt, generating $6 billion. Yet another is raising the top tax rate on capital gains and dividends from 23.8 to 28 percent (yielding $15-22 billion).

Marylanders diverge from the president on defense spending. While last year the president projected the base budget for FY2016 at $534 billion, it now looks like that number will be $522 billion. For 2017, he wants to bump that up a bit to $524 billion. Among Marylanders overall, a majority favors trimming it down to $500 billion. But this is not a bipartisan view — Republicans favor keeping it at the projected $534 billion.

The online budget process is not restricted to the Citizen Cabinet. Anyone can visit vop.org, make their own budget and send their recommendations to their representatives in Washington.

Naturally, Maryland's members of Congress should not simply follow the views of their constituents in a mechanical fashion, but it is important for members to know what the people think and, effectively, give them a seat at the table.

Steven Kull (skull@pipa.org) is the director of the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation and president of Voice Of the People, a nonpartisan organization that uses innovative methods and technology to help give the American people a more effective voice in government.

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