Utah makes game of budget process

Governor's Office of Planning and Budget

Utah officials are offering an online exercise to give citizens a civic reality check about governance.

The Governor's Office of Planning and Budget is offering BudgetUtah, a budget simulator designed to help people understand the state budget process, its complexity and the tough choices that the governor and legislature face.

To start the budget game, PC users must first download the file via a BudgetUtah link on the state's fiscal 2000 budget page (www.governor.state.ut.us/budget/fy2000).

From there, budget game participants are asked to balance a simplified version of the 2000 budget. The budget they start with is $78 million in the red. Players are instructed to change economic forecasts and tax rates in a chart. They can make their own proposals based on agency budget requests.

The game becomes more challenging as unexpected events force players to adjust priorities. One news flash says that federal budget cuts mean Utah will receive $2.8 million less in social service funds. Another pop-up news flash announces that higher education needs $45 million to fix the Year 2000 problem, but that's followed by a message recalculating the figure at $20 million.

The pressure mounts with a warning to players: "State law requires the governor to deliver a confidential draft copy of his budget 34 days before the opening of the legislature.... Time is running out!"

For support, players can click on a button to get advice from Gov. Mike Leavitt. Each line item also comes with explanations about the particular program involved.

Meanwhile, the press covers every move. Raise the sales tax on food and the newspaper calls it "an unusual increase" because most states exempt food from taxation.

Creating the game was labor-intensive, said Lynne Ward, director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, so her staff has not updated it in two years. "It's just like the budget game — making choices," she said. "We're making choices about how employees spend their time." Nevertheless, the simulator is still useful.

When the simulator was launched in 1999, Ward's office assembled reporters, editors, cabinet members, legislative leaders and representatives from large public-sector associations to try their hand at balancing the budget. Since then, a couple of colleges have used it in their public administration classes, Ward said.

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