Column: How Floridians come down on the U.S. budget

Published Feb. 19, 2016

As members of the Florida congressional delegation consider the president's just-released proposed budget for fiscal year 2017, wouldn't it be great if they could hear what the citizens of Florida think about the federal budget? A unique new survey from a nonpartisan organization called Voice of the People has made this possible.

A representative panel of 407 registered Florida voters, called a "Citizen Cabinet," went through an online process where they were presented with the discretionary federal budget 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 budget got constant feedback showing the impact of their changes on 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, a research organization.

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

The biggest difference is that the majority of Floridians go further than the president in cutting the deficit. The projected deficit in 2016 (the budget presented to the survey participants) was $616 billion. If the president were to get all the changes he proposes — doubtful given the dynamics in Congress — he would reduce that by $113 billion for 2017, trimming it to $503 billion.

The majority of Floridians surveyed, however, reduce the deficit more than twice as much — $269 billion, through a combination of $67 billion in spending cuts and $202 billion in revenue increases. While the president increases some spending items, Floridians don't.

At the same time, Floridians, like Congress, show substantial differences between Republicans and Democrats. Nonetheless, there is considerable common ground. Majorities of both parties converge on $10 billion in spending cuts, led by $2 billion in cuts to subsidies to agricultural corporations, the space program and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the big money, when it comes to bipartisan agreement among Floridians, is in the revenue increases both sides embrace — totaling $48 billion.

Some of these are in President Barack Obama'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 Floridians, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats favor a 5 percent increase in taxes on incomes over $200,000, generating $34 billion. The overall majority (but not Republicans) go further, raising income taxes on incomes over $1 million by 10 percent, increasing the total revenue to $49 billion — nearly matching Obama's proposed short-term increase for 2017 but not his long-term one.

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Very large majorities from both parties also adopt two other ideas the president proposes. One is taxing carried interest as ordinary income (that is, 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.

Raising the top tax rate on capital gains and dividends from 23.8 to 28 percent, yielding $15 billion to $22 billion, is supported by almost two-thirds overall, though only half of Republicans.

Floridians diverge from the president on defense spending. While last year the president projected the base budget for fiscal year 2016 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 Floridians overall, a majority favors trimming it to $500 billion. But this is not a bipartisan view — Republicans favor keeping it at the projected $534 billion, $10 billion more than the president.

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

Naturally, Florida'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 to effectively give them a seat at the table.

Steven Kull is the director of the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation and president of Voice of the People. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.