The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (“CTBA”), Crain’s Chicago Business (“Crain’s”) the Institute for Work and the Economy (“IWE”), and the Kineo Group launched an online budget modeling calculator on April 22, 2013. Illinois citizens may use the calculator to explore and understand the Illinois State budget and the challenges of bringing it into balance. The resource are made available at no cost through the non-subscriber side of Crain’s Chicago Business website.
The tool focuses on the state’s General Fund, and the various hard costs (e.g. pension payments and debt service) paid for with General Fund revenues. The calculator is a more advanced and comprehensive version of on-line budget “games” by other organizations for other states or the federal budget: in all cases the user may make adjustments to revenues and expenditures and see the net effect on the overall budget. And, like other similar resources, the objective of the exercise is to balance revenues with expenditures for a given fiscal year.
We have a three-fold purpose for the budget calculator. First, it provides Illinois citizens with an easy-to-use, understandable, reliable resource that provides a fair representation of the challenges presented by the Illinois budget. Every budget choice is accompanied by an explanation of the related programs. This provides users with the information to understand the incidence and effects of their choices, beyond solely fiscal impacts. In addition, each user is given easy access to data on the use of funds.
The results of choices made by the user are presented as net dollar changes. For example, Illinois appropriates all revenue that feeds the General Fund, irrespective of the source of that revenue. Yet the interrelationship between state spending and qualification to receive certain revenue transfers from the federal government is a central feature of state budgeting. In order to help the public understand this crucial fiscal dynamic, we will show the user how his or her decision that changes spending in programs that receive matching federal payments will also directly modified federal revenues to Illinois. Therefore, a $100 million reduction in the appropriation for a program receiving a 75 percent federal subsidy may only net a savings of $25 million in state taxpayer generated revenue. A running tally of the effects of budget choices made by the user will help them move to a resolution.
Second, the calculator and related social media cites are intended to facilitate the exchange of ideas among Illinois citizens, their elected officials and public interest groups. While individuals working from their home computers will comprise the majority of users, we believe that its best use will be as a live resource at town hall meetings, in classrooms, in public discussions and in policy negotiations. The default functions of the calculator are sufficient for users who have a rudimentary understanding of Illinois state budgeting. That said, the calculator is robust enough to permit users with a more expert understanding to customize the calculator to engage the public in the underlying dynamics driving the budget. Public officials and policy advocates may use the calculator to map out the results of various “what-if” scenarios with the aim of achieving a resolution to the problems that stand in the way of a solution.
Third, it is intended to establish a higher standard for public policy discourse in Illinois, much of which has been reduced to misleading sound bites and 140 character Tweets. The project team believes the proposed budget calculator will reach both key constituencies and the general public at large. It is designed to educate and inform, as well as provide vital feedback to public officials and civic leaders using the suggestions of users who agree to share their ideas as part of a community of registered participants.
The project is funded through the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
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