Having spent 15 years coordinating care in emergency rooms, I know something about setting priorities. And, right now, politicians in Washington have their budget priorities backward. Budget writers are still relying on service cuts to make their numbers add up instead of targeting hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid corporate taxes. It’s time to reverse that pattern.

Working families have a hard enough time getting ahead without losing the essential services we have every right to expect from our government. Over the past five years of deficit reduction deals, we’ve absorbed $2.7 trillion in spending cuts—in everything from housing vouchers to preschool slots to meals for seniors. It’s time to restore and improve vital services by finally collecting the taxes big corporations owe us.

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There is plenty to collect. Huge multinational firms have more than $2 trillion in profits stashed offshore on which they owe $600 billion in U.S. taxes, by one estimate. Why is the bill unpaid? Corporate lobbyists have written into the tax code a loophole called “deferral,” which allows a small band of very wealthy corporations to indefinitely postpone fulfilling their U.S. tax obligation on profits they keep offshore. Apple is the worst offender, owing some $60 billion.

That $600 billion could do a lot of good back here in America.

Three years ago I left the rewarding but stressful world of the ER to follow my love of cooking into the restaurant business. But when I needed working capital, I was forced into a high-interest loan because I couldn’t get assistance from the Small Business Administration, one of the agencies battered by recent government austerity.

Education funding has suffered, too. My daughter had to attend middle school an hour from home because the local school was overcrowded.

There have been proposals raised to collect some of those unpaid taxes, but they come at a steep cost. Rather than demand the full $600 billion due, the government would accept a small portion of it—about a third—and just write off the rest. It would end up being a $400 billion tax cut for some of America’s worst tax dodgers. That kind of reward would only encourage corporations to shelter more profits offshore in the future.

Why do our political leaders debate how much to cut from programs that help create and sustain the middle class, while they ignore the hefty unpaid tax bill of profitable corporate giants—or consider granting even more corporate tax giveaways? It’s another triumph for corporate lobbying.

Washington is convinced that the real problem is that the corporate tax rate is too high. That is ridiculous because almost no corporations pay the 35 percent statutory rate.  The companies with all the offshore profits have, of course, paid nothing to the U.S. on those earnings, because most of the money is in tax havens, they have paid other countries at only about a 6 percent rate.

Even when the profits stay in America and U.S. taxes are paid, the rate is only a fraction of what’s on the books: just 13 percent in one recent year, a government study discovered. And some well-known corporations—including Boeing, General Electric, and Priceline.com—have gone many years in a row without paying a penny in federal income taxes, Citizens for Tax Justice has reported.

Not only does this kind of blatant tax dodging starve our families and communities of needed resources, but it also gives big corporations an unfair advantage over small businesses like mine, which pay our taxes every year.

That’s why the results of a recent survey by the Main Street Alliance of more than 1,000 small business owners were not surprising.  It found that more than 70 percent of small business owners believe big corporations aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, this out-of-control tax avoidance is harming their businesses, and closing corporate tax loopholes must come before any more service cuts.

We can’t cut our way to broadly shared prosperity. We must raise the resources we need to pay for the public services we deserve. Let’s collect all the taxes due from multinational corporations and use those resources to build a stronger nation.     

Gouldbourne owns G & G Jamaican Delight in Ocoee, Florida.