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Iraq War Spending Cuts Deep into State Budgets

Iraq War Spending Cuts Deep into State and Local Budgets

Interview with Greg Speeter,
executive director of the National Priorities Project,
conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:

The grim costs of the five years of the Iraq war include up to an estimated 1 million Iraqis dead, 4.5 million internal and external Iraqi refugees, nearly 4,000 American soldiers dead and 60,000 injured. Still, Congress keeps funding the war, now to the tune of almost $600 billion through this fiscal year. Some estimates put the final cost for the war at more than $3 trillion.

The National Priorities Project, a research organization based in Northampton, Mass., looks at U.S. federal funding priorities and how tax dollars are spent by state, congressional district, and in some cases, counties and cities.

The organization just released a new report analyzing President Bush's proposed 2009 budget, which examines the impact of spending on the Iraq War, maintaining the president's tax cuts for the wealthy and budget cuts in four federal programs: Section 8 housing, community development block grants, low-income heating assistance and social service block grants. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Greg Speeter, executive director of the National Priorities Project, who summarizes his group's report and describes the impact Iraq war spending has had on the American people.

GREG SPEETER: We don't have the money to pay for the war and a lot of things - it comes out of a supplemental budget. But I really think people are feeling the pain, and they have been for several years, and this war is so expensive, and the needs are so great out in the communities, and I've added up the deficits of the states that don't have enough money to balance their budgets this year. There's about 25 states, and it adds up to about $40 billion worth of deficits for those states, and then I take a look at how much the war is costing those states, and it's $70 billion. So, it's pretty enormous, and we're in fairly dire straits at this point.
BETWEEN THE LINES: I've spoken to other experts in this field who say the war is all deficit-funded, and that's maybe why more Americans aren't more outraged about its cost, because they haven't been hit with too many funding cuts yet. Do you agree with that?

GREG SPEETER: I don't think it makes a lot of difference to say it's deficit-funded or not, because when you take a look at the budget at the end of the year, we just don't have enough money to pay for it. So, what we've done is we've tried to figure out how much the war costs, and we're all paying federal taxes for this war and we know how much each state pays in taxes and so we figured out what the war's share of that state is, and come up with a number that way.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Greg Speeter, what are the numbers in, say, California, the state with the biggest economy, regarding money for the war, versus needs at home, versus cuts?

GREG SPEETER: Well, California is running a deficit of roughly $15 billion to $16 billion, and this year will be spending about that much on the war. So, if California didn't spend the money on the war it could put it toward the deficit. So that's one example. And nationally, so far we've spent about $522 billion. I want to give people a sense of how much that is. If we rebuilt all the schools in this country, that would cost about $130 billion - that's about what we spent in the first two years of the war. The second two years of the war, we spent about $185 billion, and that's what it would cost to rebuild all the bridges that need to be rebuilt in this country. And last year and so far this year, we've spent another $180 billion on this war, and that could have provided health insurance for every child who doesn't have health insurance for the next nine years. So, we could have rebuilt our schools, rebuilt our bridges, and made sure kids had health insurance for the next nine years for the cost of this war.

We've broken down the cost of the war per congressional district, which on average costs about $1.2 billion so far, which is enough to rebuild 100 schools. We've brought the information down to the local level because we think that's the level people can best understand, we think that's the level where people can take it to their elected officials, to their members of Congress, and say, Why are we spending this money? And we think that's the level that elected officials - cities and towns - need to have so when their budgets aren't being met they can talk to their members of Congress and say, What's going on here? How come our city is spending this much on weaponry and more and we've got children without health insurance and we're considering closing our schools.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you know whether the information you make available at the congressional district level has ever been used to successfully elect a candidate to office?

GREG SPEETER: Actually, quite frankly, in 2006, MoveOn used our information on a regular basis throughout the fall of 2006, and we know that either 12 or 13 members of Congress who refused to change their vote are no longer in Congress. So, that's one organization that used our information to make a significant difference.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you talk about any relationship between spending on the war and this financial meltdown we're seeing right now?

GREG SPEETER: That just means fewer dollars coming back to our communities. I've been involved in this work since the early 1980s and have done community organizing work since the 1960s, and I've seen when the federal government did care about poverty in the 1960s, and helped reduce poverty in half. I've seen when it did care about housing and job training and put money into that, and were able to create housing units and create jobs. And they haven't been doing that for a number of years, and I think there are all these other things we're putting money into, including interest on the debt, including the war, and we're going back on our responsibility to address needs in the community. We have a military that is as large as all the other military budgets in the world; every other industrialized country provides health insurance for their children - we have nine million children without health insurance, and we can't even pass a budget with the state Child Health Program that would have just begun to address the health insurance needs of kids. I think part of it is that this federal government has decided that people don't count, and I'm very concerned about that.

Contact the National Priorities Project by calling (413) 219-5658 or visit their website at, where you can read a copy of the Iraq War budget report.

Related links:


Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 28, 2008. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

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