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Take the California Budget Challenge

by Susannah Kopecky, published

What would you do if you were asked to cut more than $18 billion out of the California budget? Many of our state legislators hem and haw at such a prospect, but you, the citizen at home, can make your views heard. 

At the least, you can see where your views on spending and the budget align with your fellow citizen, by checking out the newest think tank tool to assess spending and taxing in California.

Budget-making is no longer reserved for the political elite… well, technically anyway. A small group of Californians proved the point this week after participating in a Mercury News poll, based off a project started by the group Next 10.  Next 10 was started by F. Noel Parry, a venture capitalist, and is “Focused on innovation and the intersection between the economy, the environment, and quality of life issues for all Californians.”

The group’s newest challenge asks regular Joes to act as legislators, and decide how to clamp down on a budget deficit of over $18 billion. As the Mercury News found out, some regular citizens were able to quickly understand the makeup of California’s budget, and promptly figure out ways to cut the spiraling deficit and keep the budget under control. The participants demonstrated their keen understanding of the basic necessities of running a state, with their involvement in the California Budget Challenge.

In the Mercury News version of the budget puzzle challenge, a number of individuals “Did in minutes what polarized Sacramento often can't do in months: They held their noses and made hard choices that sometimes conflicted with their core ideals.”

While not every participant was a pinnacle of tax-and-waste-busting success, what was seen was the high degree to which the average citizen understands government and the tough decisions that need to be made.  And unlike the state legislature, this bipartisan group of individuals did quickly come up with major plans to address a nearly-$20-billion deficit.

Interestingly, many Californians have already tried their hand at the survey from the comfort of the own homes, and a number of intriguing trends are noticeable, including a desire to start cutting down on some of the more bloated areas of state spending.

The Next 10 Budget Challenge asks visitors the deceptively simple question, “How will you balance the budget?”  The challenger is asked to briefly describe the demographic groups to which they belong, and how they would rate themselves politically.

Next, the challenger is shown a pie chart illustrating the state’s budget overview, paired with five questions about the budget, who helps craft it, and what the challenger should be aware of. Next, the challenger is taken through a series of questions asking them about specific areas of major spending, and whether they would cut that program’s budget, keep it the same, or increase it.

The categories include K-12 Education, Higher Education, Health and Human Services (including health care), Protecting the Environment, Criminal Justice, Jobs and Economic Security, Taxes, Sales Tax and Property Tax.

The great thing about this challenge is that it is informative, lets you know where you stand (in terms of population percentages which agree with you), and it’s even thought-provoking and fun! Anyone can say they would cut spending, but which areas would you be willing to sacrifice for the goal of a lowered deficit and a future of projected revenue in the black, rather than the red?

A number of interesting trends were shown, including that a majority of respondents favored enacting no additional legislation to curb greenhouse gases (47.9% of challengers).  Most respondents were not in favor of increasing eligibility for unemployment benefits (57.9% of respondents).  Only 5.3% of respondents were in favor of lowering the corporation tax, and nearly half of all respondents (47.8%) were in favor of reducing tax breaks such as the research and development credit.

The percentage of respondents who agreed with your choices is listed, as is a running total of your projected 5-year budget.

Perhaps our state legislators should take the Budget Challenge, and see how their views stack up. It could be informative.

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