January 18, 2010

Analysis: Think cutting the budget is easy?

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Everybody knows cuts are coming to fill a nearly $2 billion shortfall when Gov. Martin O’Malley releases his budget today, but nobody wants their programs on the chopping block.

Now you can experience how difficult it can be to make the necessary cuts for yourself, all while juggling the colliding interests that make up the electorate. The University of Baltimore and the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute have developed a web-based game for people to try their hand at playing policymaker.

At first glance, this seems this should be a simple task. You just go into the different categories of state government and choose what programs to cut or taxes and fees to raise. The institute has called for some tax hikes to help balance the budget, but the program acknowledges that revenue hikes that even its creators have advocated can anger the virtual business community.

You soon realize that $2 billion is a lot of money, and that every time you cut spending an interest group (or several!) will get angry with you. And by the time you break even, it seems as if the entire state is calling for your head.

You could try to appease some groups by increasing funds in other programs, but that means making more cuts elsewhere, landing you back at square one.

While the game simplifies Maryland’s budget situation, it shows just how difficult it will be to balance the budget this year. And it shows how, at the end of the day, lawmakers are more than likely going to be very unpopular going into their reelection campaigns.

Check out the game, and if you find a way to balance the budget without angering every segment of the electorate in the process, let us (and your elected officials) know.

-Erich Wagner