Sep 072009
 
Authors: Aaron Montoya

Think you’ve got what it takes to play governor? Ever wanted to balance the state budget yourself?

Now anyone can, online, with a simulation tool called the Colorado Backseat Budgeter, developed by CSU’s Bighorn Leadership Program.

The program allows users to try their own hand at balancing Colorado’s estimated $750,000 deficit by increasing or decreasing state funding and taxes as they see fit. Once complete, user data is actually forwarded to the Gov. Bill Ritter’s office so he can get an idea of what Coloradans’ budget priorities might be.

“It could be a very useful tool for the public to provide input to the Governor’s office as we continue to keep the budget balanced,” said Ritter’s spokesperson Evan Dreyer.

Describing the budget-balancing simulation as a “significant challenge,” the tool’s Web site states, “The point of the simulation is to understand the budget better and to communicate the priorities (of users) to policymakers.”

Those who aren’t well versed in the state funding issues can read the brief background information provided by the Web site and get up to speed to make some fake tough decisions, while those who feel they do understand Colorado’s fiscal situation can jump right in.

“This Web tool will really bring home the challenge that government officials face right now,” Dreyer said. He cited Ritter’s decision to cut $1.8 billion and 300 positions from the budget since last fall as examples of the tough choices the Gov.’s office has to make.

The simulation purportedly puts the user in the driver’s seat of Colorado’s budget decisions, but it doesn’t actually confront users with the entire budget.

“This version of the Budgeter focuses on Colorado’s General Fund — which is the major pool of money that the Governor and Legislators control. Other funds include cash and federal funds,” the site says.

But, users are faced with working within several legal restrictions that make balancing the budget more complex.

Those provisions include:

The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which requires legislators to bring any tax or revenue increase before the people for a vote;

Amendment 23, which requires a certain percentage increase in spending on K-12 education each year;

The Gallagher Amendment, which restricts revenue on property taxes.

The Backseat Budgeter was originally commissioned by the BLDP as a tool to engage its participants and alumni with the hope of empowering them by allowing them to make the same decisions as actual policymakers, Brenda Morrison, the director of the BLDP said.

And although the site was not created with the intent to produce empathy for the Governor and lawmakers, the obstacles and restrictions users must contend with may do just that, Morrison said.

“I think it’s good for the public to understand the challenge of public servants at this time,” Morrison said./

Morrison said the site launched sometime last winter or early this spring, but she said she suspects there “may be more interest in it now during the current budget position.”

“It’s probably a good idea. I don’t know if it’ll have a huge impact,” said John Straayer, a long-time CSU political science professor. He predicted that the tool may only be of interest to those who are already knowledgeable about the budget issues./

“Mostly what the site does is remind us that there are few options thanks to the complete mess we’ve made of our fiscal policies in Colorado,” Straayer said. “It’s a train wreck.”

Seth Walter, the former director of legislative affairs for CSU’s student government, had some feedback for the Associated Students of CSU after testing out with the simulation.

“I think it’d be healthy and extremely useful for ASCSU members to get an idea of what they’re facing at the state capitol,” the senior political science major said.

As for his opinion of the tool, Walters called it like he sees it.

“(It’s) a healthy exercise in how bad (Colorado’s budget situation) actually is.”

Staff writer Aaron Montoya can be reached at news@collegian.com./

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