Like so many Minnesotans at this time of year, I’m thinking about where my federal tax dollars are going. Are they going to the needs in my St. Paul community: schools, child care, job training, roads, bridges and transit — or are they going to weapons and wars?
As state legislators, we are right now prioritizing what to spend on the programs that keep our community safe and grow our economy. Federal budget dollars that flow to Minnesota should do the same. Recently, I joined nearly 300 women state legislators around the country in signing a letter urging Congress to ensure that programs that strengthen our communities are adequately funded and that wasteful and excessive Department of Defense spending is scrutinized and reduced.
Most legislators probably wish we had unlimited resources to spend in our states and communities, but that isn’t a reality. The reality is: We have to make hard decisions about where our precious, finite tax dollars should go to best meet the needs of our constituents. Congress isn’t immune to this reality and should carefully scrutinize how our tax dollars are spent as they craft next year’s budget.
At the federal level, the Pentagon budget, including nuclear weapons and wars, continues to receive more than half of the nation’s discretionary budget. This large amount of defense spending comes at the expense of a variety of other needed programs and investments in education, infrastructure, health care, veterans’ care, energy development, environmental protection, and much more. Failure to support these important investments will ultimately weaken America’s economic strength and competitiveness. Further, University of Massachusetts economists have shown that federal investments in non-defense sectors like education, health care, and clean energy create more jobs than equal investments in the military sector.
Several areas of the Pentagon budget are particularly ripe for reform. First, poor accounting and budget practices waste enormous sums of money. We don’t know the exact number because, unlike those of every other federal agency, the Pentagon’s books have never been audited. Second, Pentagon dollars are drained by weapons systems that are outdated, unworkable, or beset by cost overruns. For example, experts acknowledge that the estimated trillion dollars planned in the next three decades to modernize the current nuclear weapons arsenal ─ including its delivery systems ─ is not affordable without sacrifices in other areas. Instead, we should to invest in the needs of our brave men and women in uniform, and our veterans, while strategically addressing 21st-century security threats.
Finally, the Pentagon must cease relying inappropriately on the “Overseas Contingency Operations” war-spending account. While the president proposed $51 billion for this war-spending slush fund, Congress aims to add more, raising this account to $90 billion – making this separate account larger than every other federal agency except the Department of Defense. This war-spending account is not subject to the budget caps that would otherwise limit Pentagon spending, but the Pentagon has been using this account to fund some of its regular programs. The Department of Defense cannot continue its lackluster fiscal management and reliance on budget gimmicks to avoid making the same hard decisions that other federal agencies and we in the states must make.
As a state legislator, I want what is best for my constituents, our communities, and our state. In signing the letter to Congress, I proudly joined hundreds of women state legislators, including several dozen Minnesota women legislators, to urge investment of our limited federal dollars in sectors that will create productive jobs and help our economy grow for years to come. We need clear priorities for our spending. Let’s make sure that our hard-earned tax dollars reflect what we care about.
State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, is president of the Minnesota Senate and vice president of the Women Legislators’ Lobby (WiLL), a program of Women’s Action for New Directions.
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