Budget Breakdown – You Make the Call

January 29, 2011

Try your hand at the Backseat Budgeter and tell us what you think by going to our Public Insight Network

Next year’s state budget is out of whack, by one billion dollars. That's how much state revenues have fallen short. Lawmakers have to make major changes to balance the budget. It's their job, but anyone can take a crack at it through an online game. As part of our series on the state budget, Colorado Public Radio's Zachary Barr tries his hand at the " Backseat Budgeter.”

Chris Adams put the game together. He runs Engaged Public, a public policy consulting firm. The game starts by showing us two things. How the state earns money. And the ways it spends that money.

Adams: And you can see through these graphics exactly what the proportions are. And if you click on them that takes you to a screen where you can make your choices.

The game is a simple model of the actual state budget. But I got to tell you, Chris Adams is no video game designer. There aren’t any explosions, or theme music. So to liven things up I’m going to add some sound effects.  Remember - we’re looking to fix a billion dollar shortfall. The game says one way to get there is by raising taxes. option one: alcohol and tobacco.

Adams: You could increase taxes on both tobacco alcohol beverages to the national median. 
Barr: Ok, good, let’s do that. So how much does that raise?
Adams: That would give you an extra 141 million dollars. 

My six pack’s going to cost a nickel more. But that only helps a little -- raising about a tenth of what we need. The game points me to another area -  taxes on businesses

Barr: Let’s crank up the corporate income tax here to about 5%.
Adams: Ok, that would give you an extra 33 million dollars of income. 

33 million. In this game, that’s not much. It turns out the state gets a lot more money from sales tax. So we bump it up a little -- point five percent, or or half a penny on that one dollar bag of chips.

Barr: That raises 371 million dollars. so we’re about halfway
Adams: Yeah, you’re making good progress.  
 
We still need a lot more money. So we go after the mother lode. Income taxes. They get a two percent hike. That helps a lot, three quarters of a billion dollars.

Barr: And where are we?  We’ve done it. 
Adams: You have a terrific surplus there; you are now at about 1.3 billion dollars

But there’s a problem.

Adams: There is a problem. There’s this blaring red button that says constitutional warning. You have violated the TABOR amendment which requires a vote of the people in order to increase tax rates.
Barr: So all the changes we made are essentially unlawful.
Adams: They’re illegal. The people would have to vote on each of those.

And even if voters approved a tax hike, that wouldn’t help right now either.  Because:

Adams: You would then have to have time to collect it -- so we’re looking far into the future, maybe 2014, 2015.

So any way you look at it, raising taxes is not going to fix next year’s budget.

Adams: However, if you want to reduce revenues the TABOR Amendment does allow that.

In other words, we have to fix our billion dollar problem by making cuts. The game gives us several options. The pie chart points to an obvious starting place: K- 12 education. That one department eats up 43% of the entire budget. Maybe we can get by fewer teachers? Let’s hack off a good sized chunk.

Adams: Well, you’ve just violated the constitution again because Amendment 23 requires a certain amount of spending on k-12 education.
Barr: We’ve been playing this game for a few minutes, and we really haven’t come up with anything.
Adams: No, but you have violated the constitution many times.


The game directs me to another area - and this one we actually can make cuts to -- prisons. Keeping all those people locked up is expensive. But letting them all out  - probably not a good idea. So we just trim corrections 10 percent.

Adams: You could really save about 40 million dollars; you’re about 3, 4 % there. 
Barr: This is not any fun at all.
Adams: It’s tough, it’s tough. I feel bad for our legislators who are going to have go this process.  


Legislators faced similar problems last year. And it should be said, they managed to find some loopholes to get around the constitutional amendments that limit taxes and require spending on K-12 education. They also forced state employees to take a number of furlough days -- something that could happen again this year. But even a month of unpaid days off for every state worker saves only about 5 percent of what’s needed. To find big savings, the game shows only three places left: higher education, health care, and human services. 

Adams: It’s about all you’ve got. If you’re looking to save money you have to go where the money is and it’s those departments.

Health care provides Medicaid to poor people. Human Services helps hungry families buy food and takes care of the disabled. Higher Ed is the entire state college and university system -- and Colorado already ranks at the very bottom among states in funding. But these three departments are vulnerable because there’s nothing in the Colorado State constitution protecting them.  So lawmakers are forced to make cuts here, even if they’d rather make them elsewhere.

Adams: We’ve really made it difficult because of the provisions in the constitution that we’ve passed. It’s a difficult if not an impossible thing to do in a satisfying way right now.

It was for me. I gave up playing the game. Legislators don’t have that option; they have until the middle of April to sort it all out.

Zachary Barr, Colorado Public Radio News.

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