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Try Your Hand at Balancing the Federal Budget

It’s Fun (Maybe) And Easy With This Handy New Tool

By Cori Keeton Pope, Special to the GPHN

In late March, the House Budget Committee released a 2017 spending plan, which includes the committee’s strategy for balancing the federal budget in Washington D.C. over the next 10 years. At the same time, Denver-based company Engaged Public released a budget simulation tool that lets voters try their hand at balancing the federal budget.

Federal Balancing Act is the result of a joint effort between Engaged Public and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank. The user-friendly online simulation provides a breakdown of where tax dollars come from and where they are spent, and by adding money to or taking it from categories you care about, you can see the long-term financial impact on the federal budget.

“American citizens pay trillions of dollars a year in taxes, but few understand the process for collecting and spending that money,” said Chris Adams, the president of Engaged Public. “We are changing that with a simulation-based tool that not only shows the public how their federal tax dollars are currently raised and spent, but also asks them to constructively join the decision-making process.”

The simulation begins with a breakdown of the budget for the current fiscal year, which is projected to run a $544 billion deficit, and includes information about how the government collects taxes and what programs the money is spent on. Users are then able to make changes to tax and spending categories based on their policy priorities. The simulator also projects the impact of those decisions 25 years out.

Users have the opportunity to adjust a wide variety of federal programs, including: health care, Social Security, defense, anti-poverty safety nets, veterans’ benefits and services, infrastructure, education, scientific research, and many others. Changes to revenue sources — such as individual income taxes, corporate income taxes, the federal gas tax and more — can pay for these programs.

The simulation makes it easy to see the potential impact of changes to revenue sources, spending priorities, and to politically sensitive policies such as raising the Social Security retirement age, changing average income tax rates, and adjusting costs of entitlement programs like Medicare.

“These are all topics we hear elected officials, lobbyists and advocacy groups debating, but it can be difficult for voters to get unbiased information about the impact changes to specific programs will have on the long-term budget,” said Brenda Morrison, co-founder and partner at Engaged Public, and a Park Hill resident.

“We wanted to give people an easy way to interact with the budget based on their priorities, which we hope will spur more conversation about where our tax dollars go.”

Once complete, users can submit their budget, and Engaged Public and the Bipartisan Policy Center will report regularly on public preferences from the simulator. Users can also share details about their budget via social media or by email.

“As consumers, Americans have come to expect information about what they buy,” said Adams. “As citizens, they should be able to expect the same. Our goal is to connect people to government at all levels through transparency and genuine opportunities for participation.”

Engaged Public’s next goal is to provide a companion tool, the Federal Taxpayer Receipt, which would give citizens an approximation of where their individual tax dollars went, broken down by federal program.

“With the Federal Taxpayer Receipt, users could plug in a few basic demographic details and receive a ‘receipt’ – or an approximation of their taxes paid – showing them the federal programs and services their tax dollars funded,” Adams said.

Engaged Public has also developed a budget simulation tool, as well as a taxpayer receipt, for the State of Colorado.

“It is our vision that Balancing Act will become a tool for citizens anywhere to engage with any public budget, whether national, state, local, school or other,” Adams said. “At the end of the day, we are funding public budgets with our tax dollars and we believe all citizens should be informed about how that money is being spent.”

The Federal Balancing Act budget simulator can be found at www.federalbalancingact.com.


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