Managing the public piggybank: Try your hand at balancing the state’s budget

Guest Editorial
Since Gov. Rick Snyder presented his budget Feb. 17, there’s been plenty of discussion.

A few of Snyder’s proposals — taxing pensions, eliminating earned income tax credits for the working poor, reducing public school per-pupil funding by $470 a student and university funding by 15 percent and eliminating statutory revenue sharing funds for counties, cities and townships while giving Michigan businesses a $1.8 billion tax break — have generated the most discussion. But there’s plenty more to debate.

The Chronicle has received many interesting letters responding to the governor’s proposals. Most of them have focused on the problems with the cuts Snyder proposed. Other letters have worried about public employee unions and teacher accountability.

All of the letters have made excellent points, but very few have offered alternatives. And that’s what Michigan needs if it is going to have useful debate about the proposed budget. It’s good to oppose cuts, but you have to offer something in its place.

As The Chronicle Editorial Board said on Feb. 20, just a few days after Snyder released his plan, the debate about this budget needs to start with the agreement that cuts will be made, that there will be fair, shared sacrifices.

For too long, lawmakers have used a Band-Aid approach to budgeting. More accountant than a politician, Snyder is proposing a budget overhaul, coupled with two-year planning, that will face reality and get the state back on track.

Legislators have said they’ve never seen a budget presented Snyder’s way and they’re working hard to understand the changes as well. They also have some ideas about the proposed cuts and tax changes.

So, how can the average citizen offer some ideas for alternative cuts? Try playing the online Michigan Budget Game ( developed by the Center for Michigan.

The organization, which describes itself as a “think-and-do” tank, was founded in 2006 by Phil Power, the former owner of 62 community newspapers in Michigan and Ohio. The group’s objective is to change the state’s hyperpartisan political culture through finding common ground by asking citizens for their agenda.

The online game starts by asking players to choose whether to go with Snyder’s proposal to eliminate the Michigan Business Tax. If you don’t eliminate the tax, you only have to make up a $1.4 billion budget hole. If you do eliminate the business tax, you have to make up $2.6 billion. While the choices aren’t as broad as some might like, you can raise taxes and make further cuts in education, general government, prison and police, public workforce and welfare and health care.

So far, 5,800 people have played the game, about half have cut the MBT. About 60 percent have successfully balanced the budget using such proposals as increasing the beer tax 2 cents, changing the sales tax to 5.5 percent and extending it to personal services, supporting Snyder’s plan to seek $3,200 in concessions from each state worker, accepting Snyder’s proposal to cut university funding 15 percent and further reducing the prison population through good time credits and releasing 4,000 prisoners still in the system after their earliest release date.

What do you think about those choices? Play the game and then send a letter about your cuts. The community needs to have a conversation about the budget — and about the cuts it’s willing to accept.