BY BILL FERRIS

Here in North Carolina, we’re coping with a budget shortfall. Valuable programs are facing cuts, and a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. I don’t envy Governor Bev Perdue or anyone else making these decisions, as pretty much any decision they make will make life worse for a lot of people. You can help convey the stakes of the situation to your students with the Balance the Budget Challenge, a game from the North Carolina governor’s office that lets us common folk try to balance a budget with a $2.4 billion deficit.

The Balance the Budget Challenge presents you with dozens of options that can cut the state budget. Should you raise tuition to universities or community colleges? Release a few thousand prisoners from jail? Or perhaps you’d care to eliminate all school-nurse jobs in the state? You can also take measures that will promote long-term growth but raise the deficit in the short term — for example, you could increase financial incentives for business to move to North Carolina. When you’ve finished the challenge, simply press a button to submit your budget proposal to the Governor.

What struck me the most about the BTBC was the sheer number of cuts you need to make — after I cut what seemed like a massive amount of programs, I found I still had a few hundred million left to go. Lest you start on a slash-and-burn campaign in the hopes of “winning” the budget, the game also presents you with the consequences of your decisions — that is, you get to see an exact tally of how many people you just sent to the unemployment line.

My only complaint about BTBC was that it asks you to make cuts to education before any other category. Obviously some category had to be listed first, but I nearly gutted the public education budget altogether before I realized I had six more pages of possible cuts to consider. I have no idea if anyone in power actually reads these proposals, but front-loading the game with cuts to school spending potentially sends a message that North Carolina citizens see educational spending as expendable.

That complaint aside, I recommend the Balance the Budget Challenge as a fun, if sobering look at how a state budget operates. It does a good job of teaching about both fiscal responsibility and the human consequences of financial decisions.

Balance the Budget Challenge

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