New online tool helps you understand Colorado’s state budget by balancing it yourself

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

With the 2020 legislative session starting this week, University of Colorado Denver launched an interactive tool to help Coloradans better understand the state budget.

CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs partnered with Engaged Public and the Colorado Futures Center to create an online simulation that lets anyone fiddle with Gov. Jared Polis’ $13.8 billion proposal for General Fund spending in FY 2020-21.

“We want more people to be informed about the budgetary decisions and the priorities the legislature will be talking about,” said Paul Teske, the school’s dean, during a presentation Monday. “… This makes the state budget more accessible.”

Brenda Morrison
Brenda Morrison of Engaged Public talks about Balancing Act.

Economist Phyllis Resnick, executive director of the Colorado Futures Center, created the content for the simulation, which uses Engaged Public’s Balancing Act technology. Engaged Public produced a similar online budgeting tool called Backseat Budgeter several years ago, and the consulting firm now develops online budgeting simulations for local governments, including the city and county of Denver. A federal version of Balancing Act is widely used in high school classrooms with a curriculum promoted by the PBS NewsHour.

Resnick said the new state version of Balancing Act is intended to give users a “10,000-foot view” of Colorado’s General Fund, which is the largest pot of unrestricted money in the overall state budget. It doesn’t include line-item details, she explained, because only “budget nerds” likely would be interested in wading through those numbers.

“It’s a tool for people to learn enough to be versed but not to be living in every single number,” Resnick said. “… It’s a policy exercise, an educational exercise, not an accounting exercise.”

The simulation is based on the Office of State Planning and Budgeting’s revenue forecast and spending priorities in Polis’ proposed budget. Users can adjust both revenue and spending, but the budget must end up balanced, as the Colorado Constitution requires for the actual state budget, forcing tradeoff decisions.

On the spending side, you’re asked, for instance, whether to continue support for the reinsurance program that’s designed to reduce health insurance premiums for people who buy in the individual market. Saying no sets aside $30 million that could be spent on other programs. The money stays put if you say yes.

Another question asks whether you want to restore $40 million cut from K-12 education spending during the Great Recession. Yet another asks if the state should invest in expanding the preschool program for low-income children. Saying no saves $28 million.

The revenue side also is adjustable, but increasing revenue in any category produces a warning about the state Constitution’s TABOR amendment requiring voter approval for tax increases. “We let you make the change, but we just let you know that the legislature and the governor don’t have the authority to do that,” said Chris Adams, Engaged Public’s president. “We, as residents, voting by majority, are the only way to do that.”

Adams said he hopes a user will spend 15 to 20 minutes with the simulation and come away feeling the exercise wasn’t easy, “that they understand the gravity of the choices and the tradeoffs.”

Resnick said she hopes to find additional funding for the simulation so it can be updated during the legislature’s budget process.

Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page. Visit CFOIC’s legislature page to track bills in the General Assembly that could affect the flow or availability of information in Colorado.

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