Think you can balance the budget?
It may be budget week in Washington, but state leaders are wrestling with budgets these days too. On Thursday, North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue is sending her budget to the North Carolina General Assembly. Like most state governors, Purdue is dealing with a steep decline in tax receipts, job cuts across state government and budget shortfalls even after making deep cuts. For the next fiscal year, she'll be attempting to close a projected $2.4 billion gap in the budget.
To understand what it's like to make the tough decisions she and other leaders like her have had to make, Purdue's office has put together an interactive tool that lets constituents try to balance the budget themselves. It's not easy, forcing voters to select various cutting and spending measures in order to get the budget deficit to zero. Is it better to add one child to each K-12 classroom or cut funds for crime prevention? Which would be less detrimental--eliminating nurses in public schools or teaching assistants in grades K-3?
Basic enough for school kids to use and surely overly simplistic in its choices, North Carolina's "Balance the Budget Challenge" might seem like a hokey way to earn the governor a little sympathy for the tough choices she's had to make, none of which will make everyone happy. As users click on various choices ("reduce low wealth funds for poor counties by 50 percent" cuts $112 million, while giving teachers a 3 percent raise costs $50 million), the deficit tally is immediately recalculated based on which measure the voter selects.
Still, it's also a wise leadership move. By putting constituents in her shoes, Purdue is helping them to see that on the heels of a massive recession that has pushed state governments to the breaking point, there are no easy choices. Helping people realize how difficult it is to decide whether to cut spending in education, public safety or social services could help elicit a more cooperative and civil discussion about what to do.
I can't help but wonder if doing something similar at the national level would help the president and Congress move the bitter budget debate in a more productive direction. It would be infinitely more complex, of course, given the far greater size of the federal budget, but a simplified exercise could still go a long way toward helping people on both sides see how difficult some of these choices can be. And while the federal government doesn't have the same mandate to balance its budget like the states do, creating a tangible way for citizens to understand how much one program can or can't affect the deficit would help to reset expectations.
A balanced budget and a smaller deficit is something everyone says they want. But the best way to get there isn't easy; and for most voters, the entire concept is extremely abstract. As with any tough call, leaders who are able to make the choices transparent--and better yet, put their followers in a position to see how hard it is to decide--are likely to win a few more people over to their position. Or, an even greater win, they may just prompt a discussion about solutions that is grounded in knowledge, understanding and civility.
February 17, 2011; 10:23 AM ET |
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