It's an online challenge to anyone who wants to try balancing the state budget on their own. The state missed its deadline to balance the 2009-10 budget -- it was June 30 at midnight -- and this test is an opportunity for any of us to see if we could do better than our elected state officials.
Go to www.youbudgetpa.org if you'd like to give it a try.
To be honest, I'm thinking state lawmakers and the governor are making a mountain out of a molehill as it relates to the budget process. They don't want to make the hard decisions because they're afraid it'll make folks angry.
This is what it comes down to: Pennsylvania ended the last fiscal year $3.2 billion in the hole, and needs to shave another $3.2 billion off the next fiscal year if it's going to have a chance at balancing that budget. That's a shortfall of $6.4 billion.
So you either have to come up with that much more revenue or cut that much from expenses. Or both, as long as it equals a savings of $6.4 billion.
Gov. Ed Rendell wants to raise taxes, while cutting few or no expenses. The state Senate wants to cut expenses, while adding few or no new taxes. And they're solidly frozen in that position -- have been for months. Neither side wants to give an inch.
So the state sits in budget Hell. State workers must work, but soon won't be getting paid for their labor. Some contractors won't be getting paid, certainly not on time. And the longer it goes, the worse it's going to get.
Anyway, I'm going to take up the challenge. How hard can this be anyway? But before I do, it's important for you to understand that the organization that's sponsoring this "You Budget" test -- Keystone Progress -- is a good deal more liberal than I am when it comes to financial matters.
That quickly became clear just by the limits it placed on test-takers and its obvious willingness to add taxes from every direction, while refusing to even consider certain cutbacks in expenses. Given those limitations, I still took the challenge.
Also, the goal of the test is to find or cut $5.8 billion (instead of the $6.4 billion we've all been hearing about) from the budget. So fine, it's their number, and that's the one I'll work with.
I'd raise revenues this way: 1. adding 1 percent to the state sales tax (6 percent to 7 percent) will provide an extra $1.4 billion; 2. reducing the $750 million rainy day fund by $400 million; 3. collecting sales taxes on professional services to the tune of $500 million; 4. eliminating the sales tax discount to save $75 million; and 5. since Pa. is the only state in the union that doesn't tax smokeless tobacco and cigars, we should start doing that to collect another $200 million in revenue.
That's it on the revenue side, given the choices I had to work with. Total? Approximately $2.6 billion.
I consider all of those choices as reasonably painless. I personally favor increasing the sales tax for one reason only -- it'll provide a mechanism for collecting some tax dollars from citizens who either don't earn enough to pay income taxes, or citizens who avoid (by cheating or otherwise) paying income taxes. That's fair in my mind because each of us has a responsibility as a citizen to pay for the cost of our government.
On the expense side, I took a big zero in the test. Why? Because the only options I was given were to cut health care for children, public education, child care assistance, workplace development, protection of the environment, public safety, local economic development, public health and one or two other things.
And I'm not really willing to cut any of those things. If absolutely forced to do so, I'd cut a couple of them by 10 percent, but that's all.
No, what I really want to cut on the expense side is the bloated size of our state government. So right off the bat, I want to reduce the size of the General Assembly and its staff by 20 percent. Same for the governor and his staff and everyone in the governor's cabinet and their staffs.
I don't want to cut the State Police, but I do want to reduce the size of PennDOT.
I don't want to cut funding for senior citizen programs, but I do want to eliminate entirely the walking around money (WAM) -- known these days as legislative grants -- because of the secretive, behind-closed-door nature of their distribution. In just one recent six-month period, the state legislature spent $100 million on stuff that's not part of the general budget.
You get the idea. There's plenty in the state budget to cut if you don't have to worry about getting re-elected to office.
I can't say exactly how much I'd save because I don't know what a 20 percent reduction in the state workforce would provide. But there are about 68,000 state workers, so a 20 percent cut would mean slashing 13,600 jobs. Figure an average salary and benefits package of, say, $50,000 a year (that's low), and it would save taxpayers somewhere around $700 million.
Cutting the state budget might not be as difficult as it seems if you approach it as though it was your budget at home. You have X dollars coming in, and you can't spend more than that no matter how much you want to.
It helps, too, if there are no sacred cows.
God knows, the state's budget is loaded with sacred cows and items of special interest.
Sorry, but in hard times that stuff has got to go.
For what it's worth, it took me fewer than 10 minutes to complete the state budget challenge.
Mine's balanced. How about yours?
Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.